Before watching the The Ballad of Shovels and Rope, the documentary that follows Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent on their rise to stardom, I hadn’t been a huge Shovels & Rope fan. Don’t get me wrong, I hummed along to “Birmingham” and rooted for them to do well — as every Charlestonian should — but that was the extent of it.
But then I saw The Ballad of Shovels and Rope, director Jace Freeman’s documentary. And I drank the ShoRo Kool-Aid. Perhaps it was seeing Hearst blast a bar-goer for touching her van and threatening to kill the next person who dared lay a finger on what was not only the duo’s vehicle but their home on the road. Or watching the ever-quiet Trent hang out on the beach with his friends casually discussing scrapping the tracks the singers had laid down, knowing he and Cary Ann could do better.
Actually, my new-found love for Shovels & Rope is owed almost entirely to the way the documentary was made. Shot in 2011, Ballad did what a doc should do: let audiences into the personal, the everyday, the reality of Shovels & Rope without seeming invasive.
The Kickstarter-funded film follows the husband-and-wife team as they tour the country and work on their O’ Be Joyful album. What starts as a three-month-long project quickly becomes a more ambitious affair, as the filmmakers follow the band as they rise from playing the Pour House to performing at the Americana Music Awards in 2013. Without any voice-over, the film manages to flow over the touring period without ever becoming monotonous, dull, or boring, which it could have easily done as viewers are taken on a tour of small venues across the U.S., day in and day out. Director Freeman provides glimpses into the duo’s lives — from Hearst writing the hit song “Birmingham” on the couple’s Johns Island porch to eating Chips Ahoy and drinking Newcastle in a Walmart parking lot after a gig to their performance on The Late Show with David Letterman.
That’s not to say the film is without flaws. The Nashville-based Moving Picture Boys-produced film has its shaky moments, like when the couple decides if they should take a record deal over breakfast at a cafe. It’s as if the cameraman doesn’t know where to focus, doesn’t want to intrude too much and so he moves the camera from Hearst to a coffee mug to Trent to a plate of hash browns back to Trent and back to a coffee mug. As Shovels & Rope try to decide on their future, the documentary decides to behave like a fidgety child watching their parents make a life-altering decision. The shots of the coffee mug were the equivalent of the child staring down at his shoes to avoid eye contact. It shows timidity on Freeman’s part — never a good trait for a documentarian.
But despite these few moments, viewers are left with a lasting impression of this hardworking band. In the end, Ballad shows how a little bit of faith can go a long way. Surely no one involved in the project had any concrete proof they were documenting a band’s breakthrough, but that’s what happened — and it’s a faith that not only Hearst and Trent have in each other, but Freeman and co-writer Sean Clarke have in the Lowcountry couple.
The Ballad of Shovels & Rope doesn’t have a major distributor, but the flick will screen at the Terrace Theater (1956-D Maybank Hwy.) for one week only starting Fri. Sept. 12. For more information visit, terracetheater.com or call (843) 762-4247.
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