By Lynne Margolis
The inner sleeve of Shovels & Rope’s Busted Jukebox Volume 1 album, which they somehow sandwiched between 2014’s Swimmin’ Time and their just-released Little Seeds, contains an intriguing quote by Charles Darwin. “In the history of humankind (and animalkind, too),” it reads, “those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”
While linking the core principle of evolutionary biology to the act of music making, it perfectly describes the nature of the album — a collection of mostly covers (Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend,” Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” Guns N’ Roses’ “Patience”) reimagined with pals including Shakey Graves, Lucius, Butch Walker and the Milk Carton Kids. It also captures the essence of Shovels & Rope: the collaborative, improvisational union of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent.
Though neither was completely unknown when they decided to entwine their considerable talents into a single entity, they didn’t have much of a plan beyond survival. Already entwined by marriage, the Texas-born, Colorado-raised Trent and Delta-born, Nashville-raised Hearst simply wanted to be together. So they took off on tour, playing songs from their solo albums, as well as a tossed-off joint effort they titled Shovels & Rope. With a rescued-from-scrap drumkit/percussion rig, a duct-taped guitar, a jerry-rigged mini-keyboard and a not much else, they strummed, bashed and harmonized their way into the hearts of Americana fans, doing so well as a duo, it dawned on them that they might be on to something. So they became Shovels & Rope, and concentrated on channeling Southern gothic horrors into deceptively pretty murder ballads or crafting intentionally unholy unions of folk, twang and punk-ass rawk ’n’ roll.
In 2012, they delivered O’ Be Joyful, which begat the Americana Music Association’s 2013 Honors & Awards Song of the Year, “Birmingham,” and Emerging Artist of the Year honors for its creators. Appearances on Austin City Limits, Letterman and countless festivals followed — including film festivals, where the Jace Freeman-directed documentary, The Ballad of Shovels & Rope, which chronicles their journey from making the album to winning those awards, picked up some awards of its own.
Their next album, Swimmin’ Time, earned more praise and brought a second Americana Duo/Group of the Year nomination (their first was also in 2013). Then came Busted Jukebox. That fall, they also delivered another collaborative effort: daughter Louisiana Jean. (Announcing her birth, they posted, “Like most of our endevours [sic] she was made at home out of a few things we had lying around.”) Like O’ Be Joyful, it was recorded wherever opportunity arose, though they’d upgraded considerably from the van that served as their original mobile studio.
They made Little Seeds at their home on Johns Island, South Carolina, recording around the baby’s nap schedule. Its songs address upheavals far beyond the sleeplessness of new parents. “BWYR” examines racial oppression; “Invisible Man” and “Mourning Song” reference Trent’s father’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease; “Botched Execution,” from which the album takes its title, enters the mind of a killer who doesn’t die as planned. Joy and sorrow collide frequently as they celebrate love and mourn loss, vividly reflecting life’s passages. Little Seeds, it turns out, is also about evolution.
They discussed the album on the eve of its Oct. 7 release (on New West) — after it had already bumped the Avett Brothers’ True Sadness from the top spot on the Americana Music Association’s weekly airplay chart. (Congratulated about it, Hearst joked, “We’ll have to send a passive-aggressive text to them later.”)
A lot has happened in the last couple of years. Some of it shows up in these songs. And you made a reference in your album bio to touring while pregnant. I was curious how that went.
Cary Ann Hearst: Well, touring while pregnant had its challenges, but it was also a great way to stay active and while away nine months of waiting. Since we were out pretty much the whole time, I got a little bit more pregnant every day and I got a little bit better at playin’ while pregnant. After the first six weeks of morning sickness stuff — or I should say all-day sickness — it was not bad. I kind of enjoyed it a little bit. There was plenty of time for me to rest. There hasn’t been too much time to rest since the baby’s been born. Those halcyon days of yore when I could take a nap and then play a show [are gone].
How are you juggling it?
Michael Trent: It’s a new adventure every day. She changes so fast. And she’s growing stronger and more opinionated. But it’s awesome. We get to be with her all the time. We just travel as a pack. The only times that we’re not hangin’ out with her are when we are soundchecking or playing the show. I feel really lucky that we get to do that.
Hearst: Yeah. Our whole crew is really supportive. And then we have some awesome nannies that are a crucial part of our touring structure at this point. There’s always a pair of loving hands on the baby, making sure she’s happy and safe, and everybody loves to spend time with her. And she’s a good-natured kid; she’s made it pretty easy on us so far.
How did the dog [a Plott hound mix named Townes Van Zandt] react?
Trent: He was skeptical at first and there was some toy confusion, because baby toys happen to look a lot like dog toys. But they’re actually the best of friends now. She wants him more than she wants to be around either one of us.
Hearst: He’s very tolerant.
As far as the situation with your dad, Michael, is he still in your house?
Trent: My parents moved to a paired home with my older brother. So they live right next door to my brother and sister-in-law in Colorado.
That’s gotta be hard, too, to be distant, but the nature of what he’s going through, it’s challenging even when you’re there. Have any of the treatments been successful?
Trent: He’s still in a study. It’s better that they’re back in Colorado now because my brother and sister-in-law, they work in town, they don’t travel like we travel. When we would go out of town it was just my mom and dad in our house, and she really needed some help.
You also went through the loss of your friend. (Bartender and musician Eric Brantley, to whom the album is dedicated, was killed in April. Two males, both 17 when the shooting occurred, have been charged with murder, with two female companions charged as accessories.)
Hearst: We had already written “This Ride.” Michael had been hearing that idea floatin’ around and we had a really brand new baby … but that song kind of served a different purpose after we lost Eric. It was strange. Once a song is written, we don’t really use our music to get us through our hard times. We don’t refer back to our own catalog and go, “I’d really like to do ‘This Ride’ because I’m going through a loss.” But [with] that song, that’s kind of what happened. It was like the song had its own life. And then we were enduring this sadness and the song was useful to us in that way. And that’s when, really late in the recording process at that point, Michael made a field recording of Eric’s mother memorializing him and telling everybody the beautiful story of his birth, which is such a funny story. And everybody’s grieving and sad, but able to laugh at this awesome story, and she was gracious enough to let us use it on this record. And that’s why we framed it up that way [as a prelude to the song]. That song really served us during that hard time.
When something like that happens, you’re lucky that you have music to turn to as a way to express that grief.
Hearst: We were out of town for a lot of that. But yeah. It’s the kind of awful thing that happens. The kind of tragedy that happens in life. And it happens a lot.
I wanted to ask about the song that comes before it, “BWYR,” which is incredibly powerful. (Written after a white supremacist killed nine people in a Charleston church, the song references “Black lives, white lives, yellow lives, red” and notes “Blood was bled and tears were shed/While that sorry rag flies overhead/That blocks the light but not the lead.” South Carolina removed the Confederate flag from its state Capitol grounds 23 days later.)
Trent: We definitely wanted to make it a song about unity.
Hearst: Kind of addressing, validating, over the course of the song, the Black Lives Matter movement, and understanding what people of color are experiencing. And then also validating mothers who are losing their sons to violence and validating good people who want to serve their community also living in fear, and just a general shared sadness about that. This is actually something that’s happening to all of us. And while everybody’s position is valid, especially with the Black Lives Matter movement, the way that maybe we can best help each other is to acknowledge each other and stand with each other instead of in opposition over who’s most at risk.
I’m curious about “Botched Execution.” Was that based on any story in particular?
Trent: We set out to write more of a serious song having to do with that. Those words are so jarring when you hear them. That had happened in the news in the past couple of years. And we were like, wow, what a subject to write about. So we set out to write something that was maybe more real or more …
Trent: Yeah, and then it just kind of turned into a dark comedy.
Hearst: A comedy of errors.
The song “I Know” sounds like you might be pointing a finger at those who perceive you as competitors, or vice versa
Hearst: I think it’s about all of us …
Trent: Yeah, it’s kind of just poking that part of the business with a stick. People are out living in vans and driving around the country and trying to do their thing, and it’s just, like, a petty thing that pops up here and there that we thought would be kind of funny to make fun of …
Hearst: Acknowledge it and poke it with a stick.
Watching the video reminded me of a story I once wrote about someone undergoing transformation for a transvestite beauty pageant.
Hearst: Michael and I think that that’s beautiful and fun and good entertainment. And we thought it was funny and not taking itself too seriously, but also had a little bit of competition …
Trent: Yeah. We wanted to celebrate the culture and all and just have a good time with it. We teamed up with Jace and Sean [Clark], our guys that we’ve made videos with, the Moving Picture Boys. And we thought they did a really good job, documentary-style, just kind of hanging out and showing the transformation and showing just, like, how crazy and beautiful and fantastic the whole thing is.
You two have gone through an awful lot of changes since the last album came out and we’ve discussed some of them, but in terms of career, do you feel now that there’s more security? Do you reach a point where you say, OK, this is fine? Or are you now feeling pressure to try to outdo the last thing?
Trent: I don’t think we really feel any pressure to outdo ourselves or make anything bigger … we’re still a two-piece, kind of rough-around-the-edges band. We just kind of stretched out a little bit and we always like to stay creative and challenge ourselves and, I guess, challenge our audiences a little bit in that way. But we just don’t really think about topping ourselves or making it a bigger, y’know, really doing anything else than we’ve always done.
Hearst: Especially in the name of commercial success being the prize at the end of it.
I don’t mean that so much as, like, bigger venues, dragging around lighting rigs, more crew.
Hearst: Oh yeah, and that is what we’re definitely experiencing. Bigger venues; we’re traveling comfortably. You’re never necessarily secure with it because things change in the music business. It’s … a crazy little lifestyle. We don’t all get to be the Rolling Stones. We don’t ever really have a plan. We just kind of make the record and make it good and put it out with people who know how to get records out to people. And however it pans out, we’re just kind of stoked that we’ve come this far.
So let’s talk about Busted Jukebox with all those great covers. Was that just something you just felt like doing?
Trent: Yeah, it was more just like a creative exercise. We knew we were gonna have some down time when we had the baby, and … it’s just a creative way to collaborate with some people we’re fans of and we admire and …
Hearst: And who we have a history with, in some cases.
Trent: Yeah, to get just a little bit of camaraderie goin’. There’s just zero pressure around projects like that, which is cool, because you can just be totally free to be as off-the-wall as you want.
Hearst: And [free] to record those things anywhere.
Well, that’s been your history anyway, right? Has your home studio gotten more elaborate, or is it still the funky little room you had going before?
Hearst: It’s just a room in a house, full of instruments and sound baffling. It’s not like [there’s] an iso room and a big old Neve console or anything in there.
I could see you guys becoming the Buddy and Julie Miller of Johns Island
Hearst: I love it! Thank-you. That’s a nice compliment.
Do you have further aspirations, like a show you wanna do or a bill you wanna play, anything like that? What’s the next step
Hearst: Gosh. I mean, I would be lying if I [said] didn’t have some [desires], like, I’d really like to be on Sesame Street? [Spoken as a question.]
That’d be so cool.
Hearst: I think you have to be real [famous] …
Trent: The people from Saturday Night Live, even they all want to be on Sesame Street.
Hearst: Yeah, Sesame Street is like, about the biggest thing goin’. We’ve been reintroduced to the magic world of Sesame Street. And it’s like, man, I wish we could, like, make Sesame Street. I wanna go work for the Muppets.
Being a parent makes you consider things you would have never thought of. You’re gonna make a children’s album next year, right?
Hearst: Well, we wanna make another Busted Jukebox. We wanna keep doing those collaborative projects. That was such a refreshing, fun thing to do. I’m always surprised and excited when there’s another Shovels & Rope record. So I hope that we get to do at least one more of those. I guess I’m superstitious. We don’t look to the future too much, because it’s like, beggin’ trouble or looking a gift horse in the mouth or …
Trent: And our heads are always down anyway.
Hearst: Swingin’ through the gauntlet.
Trent: We haven’t had a whole lot of time to really kick back and reflect on anything just because there’s always — we’ve been going constantly for the past five years or six years or something. We’re happy to be here and stoked that people care and trying to do a good job with it.
You guys have been together, what, 10 years now?
Trent: We’ve been together at least 10 years; we’ve been married comin’ up on eight.
Do you do the old married couple bickering, or would you say that you’re pretty solid as a couple? Though even bickering couples can be solid. How do you get along day-to-day?
Hearst: We’re a very happily married, bickering couple.
Trent: Yeah, you gotta get it out, I think, is the thing. Especially if you work together, and we’re with each other constantly, so it’s like, to be able to do the job and be able to keep this harmonious thing happening, we have to talk about it, and sometimes, the talk might be a bicker.
Hearst: Yeah. Might be …
You really cram a lot of energy into your shows, and when you get off the stage and you’re drenched in sweat and the adrenaline’s running, is it something you still live for? Is it still the best thing, being onstage?
Hearst: I love it. Every show is not like the easiest thing that you’ve ever done, and it doesn’t necessarily feel like a party every night, but, like, the exertion, the effort …
Trent: The struggle …
Hearst: The struggle is like, when it’s really beautiful, it is super-satisfying. When you feel like you’ve failed and you haven’t put forth your best effort, we’ll really take it personal on each other and you take it personal — you hold yourself to a high standard of performance, because, like, you chase the dragon; you do it right one time and you feel that magic, and you spend the rest of your tour just trying to get to how good it was that one show. That part is what’s hard about it and what I love about it. It’s definitely our time together. That’s when we get to really just be the non-parent version of Cary Ann and the non-parent version of Michael. ’Cause that’s on 24 hours a day now. [Laughs]
So when’s the next one coming?
Hearst & Trent: [More laughter.]