Shovels and Rope
O’ Be Joyful
“Something out of nothing.” It’s become sort of a motto for Shovels and Rope, the country duo from Charleston who’ve spent the last couple of years tearing up barrooms across the continent with little more than a guitar, a junkyard drum kit, and four gritty fistfuls of outlaw spirit.
The phrase makes an appearance in the climax of “Birmingham,” the first song on the band’s new studio album O’ Be Joyful. In true American folk idiom, the song piles on the geographical name-dropping early and often — Mississippi Delta, Crescent City, Nickajack Lake, and, yes, Carolina — but the locations are also a literal part of the Shovels and Rope story. They are places from songwriter Cary Ann Hearst’s childhood and from the band’s relentless touring, milemarkers in a rearview mirror.
Somewhere around the sixth song, the stomp-and-holler road ditty “Kemba’s Got the Cabbage Moth Blues,” it becomes apparent that the title O’ Be Joyful is more than just a gospel affectation or an old-timey reference to makeshift hooch (the title refers to a Civil War soldier’s nickname for moonshine). It’s an ethos that Hearst evidently shares with musical (and marital) partner Michael Trent, and on this album, it’s mighty infectious.
On repeat, the record feels liberating, like crossing the country in a Winnebago, and many of the tracks are summer jams in the best possible sense. The production manages to bottle some of the band’s legendary stage bravado, and it sure as hell makes you want to log off of Facebook and go do something with yourself.
They still sound like a two-person band, and any time a third musician enters the mix, it’s an atmospheric match: skronky horns on the sizzling “Hail Hail,” stabs of Hammond organ on “Birmingham,” and a simple fiddle refrain on the give-things-up-for-love ode “Keeper.” For their second recorded outing, this band still counts on guitar, harmonica, drums, and a banjo for its bread and butter. There’s no flashy playing here, just smart songwriting and a heavy dose of swing.
Both band members are strong singers in their own right, but Hearst steals the spotlight on most of the songs, whether she’s rasping like a smoker, yipping like a coyote, or belting it out like an Opry star. Still, in a band where everyone does everything — Hearst and Trent have been known to trade off on the drum stool in live shows — it is rare to hear either member sing unaccompanied. The near-constant unison vocals lend a certain romance to the proceedings, even when they’re singing about homicide and the moral pitfalls of rock ‘n’ roll. We are reminded again and again that these two talented people are husband and wife, but the effect is, mercifully, far from saccharine. They’re more like Johnny and June than Thompson Square (they of “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not” fame).
Hearst and Trent have a reputation for telling sordid tales to a rowdy beat, and they continue the tradition on this album, although in a different way. While the subject matter is sometimes sunnier than on their 2008 collaboration Shovels and Rope, which featured murder ballads and a song about a prostitute, the new release sports a road-worn sound with crunchier over-driven guitar tones, raunchier blues riffs, and production values that bring the drums out louder and clearer than before.
Any Southern band with a penchant for songs about hard living will have to deal with the question of authenticity, of how to keep a rough edge without bottleneck-sliding into typical blues-rock bar-band territory, and Shovels and Rope pulls it off with reckless ease.
The chorus of “Cavalier,” the penultimate song on the album and easily the grittiest take on ’50s rock in recent memory, goes, “Well, there’s something to be learned here/Though it may seem a little insincere/Like a cruel clown grinning ear to ear/You’re a country singer; I’m a cavalier.” They’ve made something out of nothing, all right. And it’s ample proof that when it comes to rowdy country music, these two hell-raisers are the genuine article.
O’ Be Joyful is set for release via Dualtone Records on Tues. July 31. Shovels and Rope will perform at the Pour House on Sat. Aug. 18. See shovelsandrope.com for more.