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Small and Mighty

Alt-country duo Shovels & Rope make an intimate racket.



Several years ago, the husband-and-wife DIY country duo Shovels & Rope — known to their parents as Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent — were getting ready to play a small town somewhere in Texas when they heard the emcee shush the audience like a cowboy librarian. "It was a listening room," Hearst recalls, "and this fella calms this audience and broke it down for them how they like to do things. He'd never heard of us, but it was a really earnest and loving Texas introduction. And then he says, 'Without further ado, Shovels and Ropes.'"

"We weren't bothered in the least that he added an extra 's' to the band name," Trent adds. In fact, they were so charmed by the moment that they used a recording of that intro on their new album, O Be Joyful. The unnamed emcee prefaces "Kemba's Got the Cabbage Moth Blues," and you can hear Hearst and Trent giggling in the background. But Hearst makes clear that even though he got their name wrong, "I hope he knows that we included it completely out of love."

Shovels & Rope won't have to endure too many more cases of mistaken identity or mangled names on club billboards (a favorite: Ladders & Ropes). Released on the new Nashville label Dualtone (which, "like us, is small and mighty," Hearst says), O Be Joyful proved a surprise hit, not only landing a track on the television series Nashville and the band on David Letterman but building up enough steam to land on many year-end lists. "It's been a slow and steady climb for us," Trent says.

"It feels better that way. We may not have a hit song on the radio, but I feel like the people at our shows are actual fans who will hopefully stick around."

In fact, Hearst and Trent have been touring for many years, both separately and together. They met while playing in different bands, fell in love, recorded together, got married, formed their own band. They each have released solo records, plus a joint album under their Christian names called Shovels & Rope. Eventually, they took that as the name of their band, but at that time "neither one of us had a way to tour or get our records out there," Trent says. "So we ended up playing bar gigs, three or four hours long, just the two of us. We started working up renditions of each other's songs, and I felt like we got good at it. We certainly weren't planning for anything. We were just trying to get by."

That barroom internship still informs their live shows, which are long, sweaty, lusty, rambunctious, and completely unscripted. Even though it's just two of them onstage, they make a mighty racket, trading off instruments between almost every song. Hearst plays guitar and sings, then switches to drums. Trent often manages to sing, drum, strum, and blow a harmonica all at once. The album-opening "Birmingham" spins their origins into something like a personal mythology, or at least a musical philosophy: "From the Crescent City to the Great Salt Lake, it ain't what you got, it's what you make!"

Hearst — who some alt-country fans might recognize as Hayes Carll's duet partner on his song "Another Like You" — may have one of the best voices in country music today or in any other genre, for that matter. If you can imagine Loretta Lynn singing in a rattletrap country band, the Sex Pistols on her iPod and fresh from throwing a drink in some dude's face, you can imagine the grit and soul she projects. Her vocals are lively and boisterous, conveying randy glee on the title track (about an unusual romance between a wooden-legged woman and the "young man that she plays with like a toy") and fiery devotion on "Hail Hail." And when she and Trent sing together on the simmering "Tickin' Bomb," it's like hearing an intimate moment broadcast at high volume: "All bottled up, a begging dog with my tongue out/I'm in my shell and only you can make me come out."

"Something that Michael and I both do as writers is stash a moment that's personal in a psychedelicized or cartoonized version of the truth," Hearst explains. "I think it gives us a certain amount of natural emotional separation from the songs that we sing night after night."

The album closes with the devastating love song "This Means War," which Trent wrote about the unthinkable idea of losing his wife. It ends with another sampled recording, this time of a conversation Hearst had with her grandfather when she was only 4 or 5. Early one morning, when they were the only two people awake in the house, she sat on his lap and told him she wanted a "fifi dog" — a cute poodle with a bow in its hair. But her grandfather tells her, "You need a good dog that can stay outside and protect ya." It's a small moment but surprisingly powerful in the way it draws the album to a close and perfectly sums up the band's ramshackle aesthetic: While country music produces one fifi dog after another, Shovels & Rope are small but have a mighty loud bark.

Shovels & Rope
Hi-Tone Café
Friday, February 8th
8 p.m., $10

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