This past Saturday, Shovels + Rope played to a rowdy, lively, sold-out audience at Workplay. I might’ve been the only one in attendance who wasn’t drinking, but there wasn’t a soul not dancing. I arrived as Nashville’s Andrew Combs was dreamily crooning “Too Stoned to Cry,” just before ending his set. We didn’t wait long before Shovels + Rope appeared, immediately exciting fans with the song, “O’ Be Joyful.”
Although husband and wife Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent are no strangers to the music world, making names for themselves in solo endeavors, their band, Shovels + Rope, had only formed in 2010. However, the alt-country duo has been gaining a lot of success in 2013 after gaining momentum from their latest album (recorded in their van and home), O’ Be Joyful, released this past July on Nashville’s Dualtone Records. The band gained a large amount of recognition after recently appearing on the Late Show with David Letterman, for their debut appearance on national television, playing their album-opener, “Birmingham.”
Trent is Denver bred, and Hearst was raised in Nashville, but the band is currently based in Charleston, South Carolina — whenever they’re home that is. In 2011, the band reportedly played 200 shows while on tour in the United States.
Hearst and Trent both switched from playing guitar and a jalopy-looking drum kit (consisting of a snare, kick drum, harmonica, and tambourine) throughout the set, with a pulsating rock n’ roll intensity softened with the couple’s harmonious country crooning. Their dynamic was personable; Trent mostly kept quiet, and Hearst regaled the crowd with stories of how “every night is Saturday night if you’re in the rock n’ roll business.”
Cary Ann gushed and thanked the audience between songs in her caricature-like, raspy voice, stating that “we’re trying to look cool and pretend this is not a big deal… but this is a big deal. It’s real special,” in regard to the band’s “first all sold-out tour…Y’all have watched us at The Nick, Zydeco, The Bottletree, and now we’re real excited to be playing Workplay.”
When introducing the song, “Birmingham,” an undeniable crowd favorite, the crowd cheered as the couple stated that their band officially originated in Birmingham at Zydeco when they opened for Deer Tick in October of 2010. I remember that particular show very well; it was one of the first shows I attended after moving to Birmingham.
Shovels + Rope’s stage presence was captivating and humble, but their sound was gritty, rambunctious, and charming. Their onstage chemistry was something that you can’t stop watching with tragic, honky-tonk love songs like “The Keeper” and “Boxcar,” and energetic, folk tunes like “Hail Hail” and “Gasoline.” You could feel the entire room stomping for the fast-paced “Kemba’s got the Cabbage Moth Blues,” with the crowd shouting out the chorus: “Tell Kentucky how your turnip greens grow / Tell California everything you know / Tell New York / Tell Tennessee / Come to Carolina / Drinks on me.” They brought their sound full circle with a bluesy roots song entitled, “Tickin’ Bomb.”
With influences in punk-rock as well as country, the minimalist twosome made a huge splash on the Americana scene, touring with the likes of Jack White, Justin Townes Earle, The Felice Brothers, Jonny (Corndawg) Fritz, and Hayes Carll. Since their first album, Shovels & Rope, was released in 2008 under their own names, Hearst and Trent have accumulated a loyal following all over the country.
They delighted the audience with covers of the Beatles’ “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” and “Night Rider” by Jonny Fritz. The band closed their performance with a song they had recently recorded with Jack White at Third Man Records in Nashville. “This single should be out sometime in March,” Hearst exclaimed. “I’m not sure if I was supposed to tell y’all that though,” she giggled before Trent began playing a wailing guitar melody.