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Shovels & Rope find new life after murder ballads

Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent view themselves as a “mom and pop” band, and one that can play both loud and soft.

Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent view themselves as a “mom and pop” band, and one that can play both loud and soft.

Shovels & Rope is the performing name of husband-and-wife pair Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst. But this is no acoustic, singer-songwriter duo (although they’re perfectly capable of that): Trent and Hearst view themselves as a band, and one that is fond of making noise, of bringing “less is more” to loud life. The band, which comes to Johnny D’s Saturday night, has just released “O’ Be Joyful,” its second album — or its first, depending on how you look at things in light of the band’s unusual, kinda-sorta accidental beginnings.

Speaking by conference call along with his wife from their home in Charleston, S.C., Trent elaborates on those beginnings. “I was playing in a band called the Films, and Cary Ann was playing with her own band. We had been pretty busy with our own separate projects, and we decided to make an album, which we titled “Shovels & Rope” [and released under their own names in late 2008] just as a pet project on the side while we were doing our own thing. We never really planned on being in a band together.”

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Hearst chimes in: “We met out on the road years before, playing with other bands, and it was a few years before Michael moved to Charleston and started touring less with his rock band that our little band organically started up. Primarily, it was a good way for us to pay our bills and start a life together.”

Trent and Hearst continued to pursue their own careers after they put out “Shovels & Rope,” each releasing a solo album. Then their occasional side gigs together developed into something more. Opportunities began to surface; they began to get calls from folks who had seen them play asking if they were willing to tour.

Other, more practical considerations came into play as well. One of those was domestic: It occurred to the pair that if their records were successful and they weren’t aligned in a two-person band, they would be touring separately at a pretty intense level, and they had little interest in spending a good deal of their lives apart. So performing together became their primary gig.

They decided to adopt the title of the first joint album as their performing name, but by then the name had come to mean something different to them. With its heavy quotient of murder ballads — a lot of people end up dying and getting buried in its songs — “Shovels & Rope” seemed like a fitting title for that first album. “Then we co-opted the name for our band,” says Trent, “but meaning more like the essential tools that you have to have to get by. We’re pretty minimalist in a lot of the things that we do, and we thought that it could identify us in that sort of way.”

Hearst agrees: “There was a little bit of a transition there. We were thinking, There’s two of us, those are useful things, and it looks good on a poster.

“And,” she adds, laughing, “I was thinking to myself, It kind of sounds like ‘Hall & Oates’ — that’s kind of cool.”

“We took material from the solo records as well as the one we did together,” continues Trent, “and we just started performing all of those songs as a two-piece, getting a little bit crafty with the arrangements.”

The need for craftiness arose from the fact that they were playing those songs without additional players alongside. For his part, though, Trent likes that necessity, and the other limitations imposed by a two-piece format. “I’m inspired by being limited to just a few things,” he says. “There are hundreds of four-piece bands out there, and a lot of great ones, too. But I feel like everyone settles into a specific role in a lot of those bands and that’s how it’s done. But there’s no rule about it; we can use as much instrumentation as all of our hands and feet can handle, or we can keep it simple, with one guitar and two voices. There’s a bunch of different ways that we can arrange songs and perform them.”

That’s what you’ll hear on the new record, which moves from stomp and hard strum (“Keeper,” “O’ Be Joyful”) to hootenanny rave-up (“Kemba’s Got the Cabbage Moth Blues”) to sparse, affectless folk (“Lay Low”) to skewed rockabilly (“Hail Hail”) to hymnlike hush (“This Means War”) at a moment’s notice, with Hearst and Trent responsible for almost everything “strummed, beat, shook, blown, and hacked,” as the liner notes put it, and for the record’s pervasive, full-throttle harmonies as well.

The means dictate the structure, in Hearst’s view. “Michael and I go back and forth a little bit about it, but the thing that we agree on is that this band, Shovels & Rope, is a mom-and-pop band. It’s a two-man band. If there are cousins on stage playing music, if a friend jumps up on stage, that’s fine. But I would never want to lead our audience to believe that we were anything more than a two-person band or have anyone expect to see more than that.”

Stuart Munro can be reached at sj.munro@verizon.net.
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