giving enough rope

michael trent and cary ann hearst of shovels and rope.

Two nights before making their national television debut with an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent sound understandably excited and a touch nervous. Mostly, though, they seem bewildered.

The husband-and-wife team, better known as the self-contained rock hootenanny troupe Shovels and Rope, are flattered by the invitation. But they can’t help but wonder how years of touring in a van promoting a delightfully combustible blend of roots country charm, punkish instinct and jagged rock immediacy was about to bring them into America’s late night living rooms.

“Well, it is exciting,” Hearst said. “But it was also something we didn’t even know we wanted to do. We never necessarily fathomed that all of a sudden we would get to do something like this. But we’re going to do it and try not to be too nervous. Keep your fingers crossed.”

The Letterman appearance is just the latest bit of good fortune that has helped spread the word on Shovels and Rope. Of course, having its 2012 album, O’ Be Joyful, gather gushing reviews from such disparate sources as the Wall Street Journal, MTV Hive and National Public Radio didn’t hurt. Neither did a few co-billed concerts last fall with Jack White. But that’s just the celebration side of things. The magic of Shovels and Rope is the righteous racket it creates by discovering common ground between seemingly unlikely musical camps.

Hearst was born in Mississippi but grew up with in Nashville with a love of serious, roots driven country. Critics have compared her, vocally, to Dolly Parton. But a better parallel might be to the sass and grit of Lone Justice-era Maria McKee.

Texas via Colorado native Trent was the rock ‘n’ roller before he and Hearst began to gig in each other’s bands in their adopted hometown of Charleston, South Carolina. They soon discovered enough common musical ground to cut a duo record under their respective names titled Shovels and Rope – a reference to the tools of the trade that permeated the record’s plentiful crop of murder ballads.

“I played in rock bands forever,” Trent said. “Cary had mostly played in country bands. About the time of the first album, Cary became real fascinated with (veteran New York punk rockers) The Cramps while I was getting into (iconic Americana songsmith) Townes Van Zandt. So that first Shovels and Rope record was just something to do that let us experiment in those different genres. It’s just what came out.

“That’s why we didn’t want O’ Be Joyful to be an ‘Americana’ record. We didn’t want it to be an indie rock record or anything like that. The music just came out the way it was born.”

O’ Be Joyful’s jamboree-flavored romps also seem the product of what became the very existence Hearst and Trent led for years. They toured the country for year in a van as a two person act. There were no other musicians, no roadies, no help of any kind, really. Their only touring companion was their dog, affectionately and somewhat appropriately named Townes.

“The transportation thing is kind of funny,” Hearst said. “We travelled for several years in a 15 passenger van that we converted into a sort of traveling house. Now we’re even more self-contained in that we have a small RV that we travel in. We also travel now with a tour manager who does front-of-house sound and sometimes sells merch. And we bring Townes. It’s like a little traveling gypsy cart.”

You mean Shovels and Rope can now afford to have some help as it trucks across the country and, as of next month, overseas? Indeed, so. The duo is also hinting that it may also let up, ever so slightly, on what has been a brutish regimen of touring. 

“We’ve had tours where we’ve run ourselves into the ground,” Hearst said. “Some of that was just good old-fashioned dues-paying. When a gig comes along you take it because you never know if they will ever dry up. You’re just happy to be working. But our goal for this year is to set a more reasonable pace. We’ve done so much of the grunt work. I feel like we can kind of put it in third gear and still be plenty busy.”

Of course, you wouldn’t know that by its impending itinerary which has Shovels and Rope zipping through two weeks of Southern and East Coast tour dates, before leaping over the Atlantic for a performance in London. Then it’s back home for more shows in the States and a tour of Canada.

“We giggle at ourselves for going, ‘Oh, we’re going to be so jetlagged,” Hearst said. “Coming out of our mouths, that is pretty funny. Sure, it’s all work. But it’s all stuff that we’ve always wanted to do.”

Shovels and Rope perform at 10 tonight at Cosmic Charlie’s, 388 Woodland Ave. Tickets are $12. Call (859) 309-9499 or go to

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