Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, the husband-and-wife band known as Shovels & Rope, are having a devil of a time backing their Winnebago into several parking spaces near Summerville's town square. At the steering wheel, Trent is using the vehicle's built-in backup camera, but Hearst isn't so sure about it.
"You want me to dummy check your rear end, Mike?" she says.
This, apparently, is RV lingo, which the two have picked up handily since switching from a 15-passenger van to the big rig in June. But when Hearst says it, Trent gets a half-cocked smirk on his face, the sort that audiences see so often onstage when he takes a sidelong gander at his partner.
"Yeah," Trent replies. "Dummy check my rear end."
Sitting with the two of them is a little like sitting with grandparents who have had a lifetime to develop their own comedic timing, who know the line between a loving nudge and a caustic barb. Ask how many years they've been married, and Trent will reply, "Three and a half, that's what we got ... Three and a half thousand." Hearst always returns fire.
"This one, he always gets pinned young," Hearst says of her husband, who does have something of a baby face. "But he's grown. He's an old ass. He's a 35-year-old man."
Simply put, Hearst and Trent have chemistry, and they have no intentions of adding to the band's lineup. Both are gifted songwriters, with their own solo records featuring murder ballads, outlaw love songs, and drug-addled toasts to bad luck. They've taken to calling their music "sloppy-tonk," a raucous barroom take on folk rock stirred with the sort of gritty, Faulknerian country music that doesn't get much radio time anymore. When American Songwriter got a hold of "Birmingham," the lead single from the band's latest album, O' Be Joyful, they called it "the kind of gorgeous, down-home stuff that Gillian Welch and David Rawlings might've done if they'd skipped music school and learned the ropes in roadhouses instead." Hearst and Trent say they don't appreciate the underhanded swipe at Gill and Dave, but they'll take the compliment.
Until five months ago, Hearst and Trent did their traveling in a van that once belonged to The Films, Trent's old indie-rock band from Colorado that relocated to Charleston and hasn't played a show together since 2010. Hearst is still a little self-conscious about the new ride. She worries that people back home in Charleston will see it and think they've gotten too big for their britches, what with the sold-out shows in New York City, the glowing reviews everywhere from No Depression to Huffington Post, and the recent pair of arena gigs opening for Jack White.
"Last night, I was lying in bed in my fit of insomnia going, 'Are we gonna put the RV on the cover [of the City Paper]?' Isn't that like, 'Hey everybody, look at our RV, look at us and our sexy vehicle. What are you driving? Shovels & Rope's hit the big time, kiss our ass,'" Hearst says. "I don't want people to judge us based on the luxury of our vehicle that we live in, because they don't know why we have to live in that thing."
Few who have traveled like Hearst and Trent have would begrudge them their choice of transportation. Just reading their tour schedule is enough to make a body tired; in 2011, they played more than 170 shows and logged 60,000 miles on the road. Quaint as it may have seemed for them to sleep on an air mattress in the back of the old van, it was high time for an upgrade.
Not that the Winnebago is the Ritz on four wheels or anything. Quarters are still tight, and a self-enforced road rule demands that all of their clothes and possessions must fit inside four 12-inch fabric organizing cubes — the collapsible kind you can buy at Target — which go inside a cubby over the dining area. And then there's the quest every other day to find propane for the generator, or genny, which runs the air conditioner to keep their big ol' brindle-coated hound Townes comfortable while they're away from the vehicle. And they still operate their own "stinky slinky," the collapsible tube that is used to drain sewage from the vehicle at RV pump stations.
The Winnebago also means having a real bed, cooking the occasional real meal in the microwave oven, and never having to pay for hotel rooms on tour. They're thinking about getting a grill for the road, which they've seen a lot of other RVers doing. "Like, that guy Zac Brown has a huge food and music festival," Hearst says. "I'd like to have a micro-Southern Ground, also known as our little micro-tour bus and a grill. And like a crock pot with some chili in it. Chili dogs, come get your Shovels & Rope chili dogs, ladies and gentlemen."
It was hotter than the front porch of hell at the Pour House on Aug. 18, when Shovels & Rope took a brief respite from the road and played a hometown show. Hearst's curly red locks lay flat and clung to her neck, and Trent got a hangdog look around 12:30 a.m., giving the impression he was about to fall down until somebody revived him with a bottle of water. As usual, the two switched off several times on drums and guitar, pounding on a bass drum reinforced by a hoop, duct tape, and Gorilla Glue.
"We're just like you," Hearst told the packed crowd between songs. "Look at us, we're up here in our underwear." Early in the show, both she and her husband had peeled off their sweat-soaked Western-style button-ups and continued in their undershirts, to big cheers from the dehydrated and delirious crowd.
The Pour House is the cradle of Shovels & Rope. For years, they had a regular Monday-night gig there, back when they didn't have a name for the band. When they started experimenting with a friend's old drumset, they more or less learned to play it onstage at the James Island bar. "That's where we had the opportunity to work it out in front of a loving audience that was a little bit drunk," Hearst says.
For Trent, this is a second rise to fame. After graduating from a Christian high school in Colorado that chaffed his rebellious sensibilities, he took a couple of stabs at college before making a successful run with his band the Films. He's done the rock-star thing and crowd-surfed at concert festivals in Germany, but Hearst has mostly seen that part of his life on YouTube.
Hearst, born in Mississippi and raised in Nashville, came to Charleston to study American history, ostensibly. "I was high and drunk most of the time at College of Charleston," says Hearst, who still managed to earn her degree. "Sorry, Cougars." Having grown up sitting in on her stepfather's bluegrass practice sessions, she took an interest in performing, playing some songs at a bar called Fluids and fronting a series of bands. First there were the Boonies, who played Irish reels, old folk and country tunes, and pirate-inspired sea shanties. "We weren't that good, but we had a lot of heart," she says.
Then there were the Borrowed Angels, featuring Jump Little Children members Jonathan Gray on bass and Evan Bivins on drums, and then there were the Gun Street Girls. None of those projects ever took off, though. "It's hard to convince people to go out on the road and leave their $150-a-night gig for a cut of what's left after gas and hotel," Hearst says.
Trent and Hearst first crossed paths at a show in Athens, Ga., in 2003, where the Borrowed Angels and the Films were both on the bill as opening acts for Jump. "I thought that they were all very handsome, and I couldn't decide which of the Films I thought was the handsomest," Hearst recalls.
By the time the Films relocated to Charleston, Trent was taking an interest in songwriters like Townes Van Zandt and Tom Waits. "I like country music, but I like a lot of the darker side of it," he says. He experimented with character-based storytelling, and his 2010 solo album The Winner was a mix of personal and fictional narratives. On the title track, which featured background vocals from Hearst, he laid the foundations for the Shovels & Rope ethos: "We always back the underdog 'cause he's the only one we trust / And if that one's for the winner, this one must be for us."
That song was from the lean years when Trent was working to re-establish himself as a solo performer while occasionally receiving royalties when a Films song got licensed. "I had the opportunity to write some songs for a couple of Butch Walker's records, which, you know, was helpful in staying alive," Trent says. They were living near the northern end of downtown Charleston, scraping to pay the rent that would eventually price them out to a friend's house on Johns Island, and Hearst was picking up shifts as a waitress at Jestine's Kitchen whenever they were back in town.
"Three years ago, we were sleeping in a little apartment on Hester Street with no furniture, couldn't get credit enough to finance a $300 mattress to sleep on at the Big Lots," Hearst says. "I mean, we really had our health and each other." Hearst remembers lying down beside her husband on an air mattress and praying in the dark. They live more comfortably now, but they both talk about how fortune can change in a heartbeat, and how even Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson were all but forgotten at one point in the '80s. "We've been so blessed, we say 'Thanks' more than we say 'Help' at this point in our lives," Hearst says.
On their latest stop in Charleston, after the Jack White gig, Hearst and Trent made a trip to Summerville to pick up their Winnebago from a repair shop and to top off the propane tank. Around noon, Hearst begged Trent to stop at Eva's Restaurant, the downtown diner where the old guard hangs out and where you still can't pay your bill with a credit card.
Trent gets a BLT; Hearst goes all-in on the whiting, fried eggplant, and butterbeans. Both order politely, saying please and thank you. Eating here is partly a way of paying respect to Scarlet Vaden, a former waitress at the restaurant and the mother of their friend and fellow musician Sadler Vaden (formerly of Leslie, now the lead guitarist for Drivin' N Cryin'). Scarlet, whom Hearst calls "the patron saint of waitresses," died of breast cancer in 2007.
"She was good at what she did. She raised her kids that way, paid her mortgage that way, was really a graceful service person," Hearst says. "And then she got really sick and still worked there until she couldn't work there anymore, and now she's gone."
Trent and Hearst have spent most of the morning talking about life on the road, but it is at Eva's that they finally start talking about their songs. Their first proper collaboration was on a 2008 record called Shovels & Rope, when they were just going by Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent. Hearst would write a song in Charleston, and Trent, who lived in New York at the time, would write another song in response. "We could take some of the characters in this story, and what would they do next, or what would happen next?" Trent says. "The body count kept getting higher and higher on that one."
It was a giddy bloodbath of an album, with stompy drums and train-horn harmonicas behind songs about a prostitute named Magdelina, a pair of Bonnie-and-Clyde-style outlaws bleeding out in a boxcar, and someone "pouring gasoline on the killing field." Hearst's 2011 solo effort Lions & Lambs was no cakewalk either, with a perky '50s rock ditty called "Are You Ready To Die?" and the song "Hell's Bells," which featured a chorus about cocaine addicts grinding their teeth all night.
The new record, O' Be Joyful, is markedly more upbeat, with only one proper murder ballad in the sizzling "Shank Hill." There's a song about how the two met ("Birmingham") and a song about the long-distance relationship of Hearst's father, a former oil company employee on a seismographic ship whom she calls "the world's most well-traveled redneck." The album was recorded largely at the couple's house with a single microphone, a little preamp, and a laptop computer. They invited musician friends to contribute horns and other embellishments, and they even recorded some tracks in hotel rooms and the old van.
The sound is a little bit sunnier, but the album's title is deceptively dark. Hearst picked it up while watching Ken Burns' documentary The Civil War, where she learned that o'-be-joyful was a dangerous drink that soldiers concocted on the battlefield. "It's basically the crystal methamphetamine of its time," she says. "It's not moonshine; it's made out of poisonous bark and berries, turpentine, rotten whatever food that they could ferment. I mean, it's borderline poisonous ... They doped themselves up, these freezing-cold, under-dressed, under-geared Confederate soldiers going off into the wilderness for the first time thinking war was gonna be awesome and found out otherwise and got really stoned on it to go out and fight."
"We also thought that was like, in a sort of a messed up way, it's the way that we operate our band," Trent chimes in. "We sort of use the rawest, most — you know, things that we have to work with around the house, and put it together that way instead of going out and getting the best organ sound or getting in a big room to get that certain kind of drum sound or whatever. We just sort of throw it together and make some sort of evil concoction."
After lunch at Eva's, Hearst and Trent have other errands to run before hitting the open road again: taking clothes to the laundromat because their dryer is broken, picking up their laptop from getting repaired at the Apple store, and maybe — if time allows — recording a Christmas single titled "Peppermint." Such is the glamorous life of Shovels & Rope.
Back at the Winnebago, Townes starts whimpering with excitement before they even open the door, which sports a "Beware of Dog" sign on the screen. When Trent gets behind the steering wheel, Townes settles in beside him on a rug his owners have thoughtfully laid out.
"Does it smell like a dog in here to you?" Hearst asks. "Mildly, even? Like a two out of 10? Yeah, as long as it stays below five."
"Could be us," Trent replies.
"Yeah. Could be us."