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Shovels & Rope finds rhythm in hard work, literate story songs

Brian T. Atkinson
Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst wrote a lot of recent record “O’ Be Joyful” while touring, learning to squeeze in writing time between driving and other logistics. They’ve put aside solo careers to work as duo Shovels & Rope.

Shovels and Rope’s excellent “O’ Be Joyful” backs literate story songs (“Birmingham”) with forceful rhythm (“Keeper”) and blues (the title track). The Charleston, S.C., duo recently opened two East Coast shows for Jack White.

“It was awesome,” singer-songwriter Cary Ann Hearst says. “At one point you make that list, like, ‘What’s some stuff you want to do?’ That was higher on the list than most. ” Shovels and Rope perform Saturday night at Stubb’s indoors.

American-Statesman: Explain how the new album came together.

Michael Trent: Well, we ended up writing a lot for this one on the road because we were (touring) so much. That’s not something natural, at least for me, because you don’t really have that much time. We’re pretty much just a two-main operation, so were always dealing with logistics and driving. So, were learning how to write on the road and we’ve done more collaborating than in the past.

Does the record have a common lyrical theme?

Cary Ann Hearst: There’s definitely a geographical theme that kind of runs through it because we were traveling so much and are primarily storytellers. Time and place is important and sometimes they’re even prevalent characters in the songwriting. The records that we’ve done have been very thematic. The first album we did together was an album called “Shovels and Rope” (in 2008). We’d been listening to “The Delivery Man” by Elvis Costello, which is a concept album.

Tell the story behind writing the opening track (‘Birmingham’).

Michael Trent: We’d been trying to figure out what we were trying to do with this project since it wasn’t either of our intentions to be in a band. We were on our way to Birmingham to play a gig as Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent and were trying to figure out how to combine these projects or go on with our solo careers and…

Cary Ann Hearst: …Yeah, we were playing a show in Birmingham with Deer Tick and J. Roddy Walston at a softly attended show at the Zydeco and we knew if we could take our egos out of the project and pull our resources and get real creative, we would be able to stay out on the road long enough to do the work.

Did establishing a band name change your approach?

Cary Ann Hearst: The minute we took our names off and gave ourselves a semi-familiar band name that also looked pretty cool on a poster, it just kind of propelled itself naturally. Were not terribly ambitious or deliberate, but we are hard working.

Do you draw from any Texas songwriters?

Cary Ann Hearst: Yes. Not just because were friendly with him and not just because the great opportunity he gave us in Texas, but just strictly from a storytelling perspective, Hayes Carll. He’s our bro. We love Ray Wylie Hubbard and Lyle Lovett and we adore Texas music and its traditions. I know there are guys who tour 250 days a year in a bus sponsored by Bud Light and don’t have to leave the state of Texas. That’s a beautiful thing (laughs).

You’ve said you’re into Townes (Van Zandt), too, right?

Cary Ann Hearst: We’re influenced by Townes as songwriters, too. I think as a Tennessean, we like to claim him for our own. Michael’s a Coloradan, and they like to claim Townes for their own. I know that Texas has dibs on him, too (laughs).

Shovels and Rope