These are the best of times for the Americana super duo Shovels and Rope. In a span of three years the husband-and-wife team of Micheal Trent and Carry Ann Hearst have snatched national prominence from the jaws of certain obscurity using little more than a couple beat up drums and two old guitars. If there ever was a story of outsider success over long shot odds by musicians (in the truest sense of the word) it can be found it in the colorful ballad of Shovels and Rope. And if this is to be a fairy tale complete with all the classic elements, love at first sight, years of anguished separation, a glorious reunion, and finally the triumph of good over evil, then perhaps a bit of back story is in order.
Before S&H, Micheal Trent had been something of a country troubadour. Southern Gothic in its modern sense, the Winner released a couple of LPs as a solo act detailing the hopeless and hungry ambition of one come up from the dirt. Trent composed steady-handed, minor-keyed murder ballads in the fine tradition of the Appalachian honor code. His frank lyrics about drug abuse and southern pine detailed in even, unforced phrasing the roughshod path of any young man artistically isolated in this digital age. Trent could have done well for himself in this vein except one summer night in the neon depths of a Savannah rotgut he stumbled across the path of Cary Anne Hearst.
Ms. Hearst’s early work is characterized by a Stevie Nicks type cocaine and witchcraft attack on song writing. Whether it be through her magnetic stage presence or soaring vocals she’ll cast a spell on you. She’s a natural charmer, the type of girl who could easily drink you under the table before driving you home to put your sorry ass in bed. Both sweet and condescending in honey toned hues, she could call the roughest rounder “darling,” and have him running. It’s little wonder Trent fell irreparably for this beauty.
Water finds its own level, but for various reasons fate would not be satisfied for several years. The two artists went about their separate careers finding modest success in each until necessity drew them back together. The first release, 2008’s Shovels and Rope, was more a group a collaborative release than the implementation of a group. Critical response was clamorous. Though the new couple was still recording videos for Youtube in their touring van and opening for regional acts across the states, the self titled debut was a record hard to ignore.
The first indication Shovels and Rope was more than just a passing sensation came with their second release, 2012’s O’ Be Joyful. A one-off great listen isn’t that rare. The wheat separates from the chaff with consistency. To top all O’ Be Joyful wasn’t an extension of earlier work like some sort of Shovels and Rope: Part II. The self titled collaboration was desultory to a fine degree, whereas O’ Be Joyful was exactly what the title would indicate–an upbeat, rollicking mania to counter the previous depressive. Critical opinion, though fanatic, made little difference as the group began playing national festivals, headlining their own tours, and appearing on major network night shows.
Enter the final installation of this three part harmony. The newest release, Swimmin’ Time, out August 25 is the culmination of everything that makes Shovels and Rope the most exciting Americana act of the past 25 years. There is a great back story there, certainly. But any passionate romance is predicated upon reciprocation. While both musicians could’ve done quite fine in their own right, it is only by reinforcing one’s strength while simultaneously propping up the other’s weakness that together they create the tour de force S&H has become. Swimmin’ Time is the product of our generation’s June Carter and Johnny Cash after all the messy history has been laid to rest. It may not be readily apparent yet, but history will prove it so.
Perhaps due to lowland Carolina origins, water figures heavily throughout Swimmin’ Time. Like the intro to an early McMurtry or McCarthy novel there is something both timeless and incredibly immediate to songs concerning the ebb and flow of the modern condition. In our poverty we are still rich, yet despite our liberty we are shackled by our passions, excesses, and egos. Add to that the flotsam and jetsam of the music industry and Swimmin’ Time becomes an exciting album to navigate. All the more so when one considers the type of music S&H prefers to play has never been popular. Using Delta blues, finger picking, rockabilly, cut-throat narratives, and doo-wop, Shovels and Rope is making critical types of music that has never truly been popular. You can build around your heart a wall, but it’s best to embrace the modern conveniences of this digital age with style, wit, and grace. Memory not forsaken, Swimmin’ Time combines the most desultory frustrated everyman singalong lyrics of this new Depression with modern post production techniques.
In bridging the past to the present you can then find a path into the future. Early album standout “Evil” references “another victim of the mortgage bubble credit pop…” while some tracks later in the midst of pixie muted Dixie Land opulence, the narrator glories over making a good living “offa suckers in Ohio.”
Swimmin’ Time showcases the best of both the old and new, the idealized past and the disgusting, bloody, senseless present. Lyrics to make your soul shake loose from out your chest meet vocal delivery that’ll convert you through pure emotive conviction. Is this article a bit romanticized? You’re goddamn right it is. There isn’t too much praise by either critic or publication these days that isn’t paid for in some way. These words are free.