Earlier this month, alt-country duo Shovels & Rope‘s “O’ Be Joyful” debuted atop Billboard’s Heatseekers albums chart, announcing the arrival of a husband-wife collaboration that was never supposed to happen.
Charleston, S.C. natives Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst started out as individual artists working hard to promote records like Trent’s “The Winner” and Hearst’s “Lions and Lambs,” as well as a collaboration titled “Shovels & Rope.” “We didn’t have a plan and we didn’t have any kind of way to tour,” Trent tells Billboard.com. “So, we were playing some shows around in our hometown, bar gigs, just trying to make some money. That started being the thing people wanted to see rather than our individual projects… People started asking for [both of us]; they wanted the duo.”
Trent and Hearst then gave into demand, made Shovels & Rope their joint venture after their song title of the same name, and then embarked on tour billed as such.
Because touring takes up so much of their lives, “O’ Be Joyful” was written mostly on the road. “We were writing organ parts when we were flying down the highway, or we were tracking vocals in the bathroom of a hotel. We sort of put it together on the fly,” said Trent.
The result is a unique blend of rock and “old timey” country music, according to Hearst. The title track to “O’ Be Joyful” mixes Hearst’s twangy voice with bluesy guitar riffs and the strong backbeat of a bass drum.
Much of the record follows suit. Lyrically, Trent and Hearst take storytelling inspiration from Elvis Costello, Townes Van Zandt and Tom Waits. Sonically, there are callbacks to rootsy rock sounds (“Hail Hail”) and down home country hoedowns (“Kemba”).
The final track on the album, “This Means War,” is a bittersweet song with melancholy moments coming from the instrumentation and Trent’s lyrics. The song is surrounded by hope and loving memories in the form of an old recording between Hearst and her grandfather.
“When I was about 4 years old, my grandfather had a little tape recorder and he woke up early one morning and came in and did a kind of secret interview with me. My grandfather died about four years ago; it was really tough on the family,” Hearst explained. “Then this recording turned up and it was the most precious thing to hear his voice again for the first time from 30 years ago. Michael found the recording and unbeknownst to me he spliced that recording to the end of the song. It was kind of a surprise for me. I was really happy about it. I think it’s a beautiful moment.”
Shovels & Rope will continue on the road through mid-September, and eventually, a documentary will be released about their experiences writing and recording “O’ Be Joyful.” The band hopes the documentary, which is expected to wrap before the holidays, will make the festival circuit or get a slot on a documentary channel. But, if nothing else, “It’ll just be a cool thing that the music world will enjoy,” says Hearst.