Back in 2010, probably like many others, a track grabbed me at the end of a popular, vampire-themed television episode. It had raw beats, a dirty guitar hook, and threatened to beat the mistress.
The artist behind the song was Cary Ann Hearst, and as I dug a little deeper I found video after video of songs played in tiny clubs in collaboration with musician Michael Trent. That “Hells Bells” track had made it to HBO, but the singing/songwriting duo(who at some point got hitched and took on the name Shovels & Rope) traveled like gypsies only within their stomping grounds of the Southeast. Their music was deeply planted in life experience and parables, abundant with endearing vocals and so much heart. There is also a lot of sass- that kind of Southern sensibility that knocks you down a notch if you’re getting too big for your britches.
It took a while before they finally ventured out, travelling cross-country to play Pick-a-thon, taking a gig as the opener for Mr. Jack White, and bringing some raucous to our Canadian neighbors. They have been documenting their adventures for a feature length film (below).
I trudged through a shoulder to shoulder crowd that was whistling and dancing loosely at the couple’s first headlining show in Portland, with local band Denver as the openers within The Doug Fir. Hearst came to stage in red jeans and noted that “Everyone seems so useful in Portland”, with a big, mischievous, smile.
They opened with stompy “Gasoline”, and then “1200 miles”, a story about love and feeling like damaged goods. They play on their own, tag-teaming acoustic/electric guitar, a small drum kit, tambourine, and harmonica rigged up with a few recordings. There was powerful imagery of human behavior as Cary howled about black-eyes, bloody noses, and bad luck, while seamlessly crashing a symbol behind her with a maraca.
Older songs like “Kitchen/Hallway” struggle with life changes, bills past due and “straight up hustlin” to get by. There was rowdy “sloppy-tonk” with “Hail, Hail”, as the room moved with fat blues guitar and keyboard. Their cover of Springsteen’s “Johnny 99”, which started with cute vintage pop but shifted midway into jail-house gospel, was recently picked up by Jack White’s Third Man Records, with their rendition of Tom Wait’s “Bad as Me” on the B side of a 7” single.
There were some issues with feedback that gave pause, but we were all in good company. Cary Ann told us to hang in while they “were gonna have a little fun” and improvised with a few songs.
I’m actually a little apprehensive that Shovels & Rope ignited a remembrance of liking country. What they do affects me deep, like emerged memories of watching The Grand Ol’ Opry with my grandmother as a kid. They are not folk, they are not really alt-country. Dare I call it “Indie-country”? It’s a new country-rock music, which is really more indicative of old country genres and inspirations: classic duets, June and Johnny, Loretta Lynn, big families, church, and gossip.
The intimacy between the two is intrinsic. The moments they look into each other smiling and connected are special and encouraged by the harmonious poetry of songs like “Carnival”. It gets intense when they they don’t just get close, they get in each others faces to belt it out in passionate unison.
Get your boots on ya’ll and find O’ Be Joyful (below) and the Johnny 99 7” on Vinyl. Shovels & Rope return to the Pacific Northwest to play Sasquatch in May.
Words and photo by Brandy Crowe