New documentary explores how Shovels & Rope made 'something out of nothing' 

Folk For Modern Ears

There's a scene in The Ballad of Shovels & Rope where Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent are at their wits' end in a Los Angeles recording studio, trying to lay down tracks in two days with not enough sleep. After they botch the fast-talking lyrics for the umpteenth time, Trent stops to check on his wife.

"Are those angry eyes? Hungry eyes?" Trent asks.

"They're patient eyes," Hearst says.

It's one of a hundred tender moments in the documentary when you find yourself falling in love with the bandmates-soulmates who have lately become the sweethearts of Americana and folk music fans nationwide. Like the moment in James Island's now-defunct El Bohio restaurant when Trent plays a special request for a girl before she leaves early to go to bed. Or when Hearst shifts out of rock 'n' roll mode to wait tables at Jestine's Kitchen, holding down a day job to keep the dream alive.

The documentary, which premiered at the Nashville Film Festival in April, is looser and less dramatic than rock docs like, say, the Wilco film I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. It shows the hard times, but the grit is tempered by the couple's sweetness. The question that keeps coming to mind is, how did the filmmakers know this was going somewhere?

When the Moving Picture Boys started filming The Ballad of Shovels & Rope in the fall of 2010, the band was just starting to write and record its breakout album, O' Be Joyful. That record would go on to sell 58,000 copies, earn the band four nominations at the 2013 Americana Music Awards, and launch them onto the national tour circuit with the likes of Dawes and Old Crow Medicine Show.

But back in 2010, they were just a charming folk-rock band with a strong local following. In a 2012 interview with the City Paper, director Jace Freeman said he was struck by the band's outlook on professional music.

"It seems like Michael and Cary define success not by fame or fortune, but success to them is having the opportunity to pursue their passion," Freeman said. "To quote one of the songs off the new record, 'It ain't what you got, it's what you make.'"

Talk to locals who've known Trent and Hearst for a while, and some will say they knew the pair were destined for greatness all along — or at least they'll say greatness couldn't have happened to two more deserving people.

The City Paper tried to arrange an interview with the band in advance of their big homecoming show at the Spoleto finale, but they're laying low until they can release more details about their next album, Swimmin' Time (out Aug. 26). So we interviewed some of their friends instead.

Jack Burg, a veteran drummer of the Charleston music scene, played in Hearst's previous band the Gun Street Girls in the mid-2000s. Recently, Hearst and Trent returned the favor and appeared on several tracks for Burg's new project, a band called Punks&Snakes, and took the stage with him for a star-studded album release show at the Pour House.

"I remember when they were still playing local gigs around town, watching Cary get better on drums, simultaneously being like, 'God dammit, they're never gonna need me to play drums for them again,'" Burg says.

The Gun Street Girls didn't make it big, and neither did Cary Ann Hearst & the Borrowed Angels, nor Trent and Hearst's solo efforts. The duo scraped by for years, building up a collection of hardscrabble songs from their various projects, until finally something clicked.

"If you talk to Cary Ann about it, she says they just hit their stride right at the right time, when this whole folky Americana was crossing over a little bit with Mumford and bands like the Avett Brothers. So timing was definitely on their side," Burg says. "I think that had something to do with it, but they busted their asses, man, and they still do."

Going back and listening to their 2008 album Shovels & Rope, it becomes obvious where the band name came from: Half the songs involve characters who might end up digging a shallow grave or hanging from a length of rope. Written in a bleak Western vernacular, these songs are fun and harrowing, like outlaw country or a cowboy novella.

But on O' Be Joyful, they moved beyond a predilection for murder ballads and songs about boxcars. They leapfrogged the resurgent folk movement that so often gets caught up in nostalgia and found that modern life was adventure enough. There's still one proper murder ballad in "Shank Hill St.," but Trent and Hearst also decided to let us in on their life together, whether out on the road or back at their Johns Island home. Lead single "Birmingham" is the story of how they met; "Keeper" is about Hearst's father.

The Shovels & Rope sound avoids the pitfalls that have resigned lesser bands to the folk-rock ghetto. They don't wear suspenders and straw hats and pretend like the 20th century never happened. They never had to worry about being called twee; a song on Shovels & Rope included the phrase "fucked to bits, all ass and tits." They're a proper rock band more than anything.

One person who had a front row seat to the band's early years was Alex Harris, co-owner of the Pour House. Before the duo even had a name, Harris gave them a regular gig every Monday night on the back deck of the James Island venue. It was there that they tested out new songs and honed their skills on a beat-up old drumset in front of an increasingly loyal crowd. You can find recordings of some deck shows on archive.org, and the ramshackle charm still shines through.

These days, Shovels & Rope draws too big a crowd to fit in the Pour House. The last time the band played a show there was in the summer of 2012, when sweat-drenched fans stood shoulder to shoulder while Trent and Hearst burned the house down. They've toured relentlessly since then, and on the occasions when they did come home, they sold out two consecutive nights at the Charleston Music Hall and drew a swarming crowd of twentysomethings to the otherwise laid-back Edisto Island Bluegrass Festival.

Harris says the secret to Shovel & Rope's success is their work ethic, combined with a keen sense for business. But he says they're also a band whose time has come. He remembers marveling 10 years ago that they weren't making it big on the national circuit yet.

"It's just real. It's really the way they are. It's not an act," Harris says. "That comes across, and maybe that's becoming more popular."

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