Watching Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent take command of a stage — whether it’s as small as the one at Preservation Pub in downtown Knoxville, where they played as their careers began to take off, or at The Tennessee Theatre, where they’ll play on Friday night — is a thing to behold.
In the grand tradition of acts that rely on the power of song and the energy of a two-person hurricane, the married couple, performing as Shovels and Rope, weave a spell of passionate exuberance that’s almost tribal. Whether the venue is opulent and historic or smoke-filled and raucous, they turn each performance into a tale of their love story, one that now involves two children and making music in a home studio while taking turns bouncing babies.
It is, they told The Daily Times recently, a life of beautiful chaos. “By Blood,” the most recent Shovels and Rope record, is the latest chapter of that life — messy, often exhausting, always imperfect but nevertheless rewarding in a way that nothing they’ve done on their own has been.
“It’s just a reconstruction of our reality,” Hearst said. “All of the characters in these songs, the ones that don’t necessarily pertain to our personal experience, are people who, in their own way, are putting together the best attempts at themselves. They’re examining their shortcomings, or they’re accepting that they have a hard time being the best they want to be, but they’re all pushing forward to consider what changes they can make.
“Because that’s kind of a rejuvenation of self. That’s all over this record, and it kind of ties together with where we’re at in our own life.”
The two met in Charleston, South Carolina — Hearst was playing solo and with an old band (the Gun Street Girls), while Trent was part of the rock band The Films. They ran in the same circles and started dating; from the beginning, Trent said, the chemistry between them was obvious.
“I feel like the first time we ever sang together was when we were maybe messing around with some recording in one of our apartments at the time,” he said. “It was apparent something was happening when we sang together. I feel like both of us really like being harmony singers, but we learned it from different styles. Cary learned (from folk and soul music), and I learned how to sing to the Beatles or the Beach Boys.
“I think it was just kind of an instinctual thing, and we’ve just kind of been able to do it from the beginning. Now that we’ve been doing it for so long, it’s almost funny, because we don’t know who’s going to do what, but we follow each other really closely and lock in really quickly.”
In 2008, they released the collaborative album “Shovels and Rope,” taking the album’s title as a name for their band and giving the love they share a soundtrack over the course of three official albums: 2012’s “O’ Be Joyful,” 2014’s “Swimmin’ Time” and 2016’s “Little Seeds,” as well as two cover albums and a collection of previous works and unreleased demos. Live, their show resembles a ramshackle game of musical chairs, with the pair swapping instruments and taking turns banging on a homemade drum kit that’s decorated with flags, pendants, trinkets and other souvenirs from their travels.
“We’re not really good at any of the instruments,” Trent said. “We can get around on all of them, but the thing that was important to us was to make this show move and not be boring in any way. We don’t feel like the songs are boring; we feel like we write good songs and present them well, but using two instruments and two voices for an hour and a half, we wanted to throw some color in there and some new sounds to give the show a place to go.”
“By Blood” was created in the aftermath of a tumultuous period in their lives. Trent’s father died, and they had their second child, and as a result, the dual themes of sorrow and joy echo throughout the songs of “By Blood” in abundance.
“I feel like maybe there was a little bit of a shift, from the dark side of grief to being able to see the sunshine again,” Trent said. “A lot of that was kind of happening around the making of this record, and we were feeling a little bit more at ease about things and really excited about the songs. What we wanted to do was to make this big, cinematic, just dramatic kind of record.”
The album itself is a lush and nuanced piece of Americana, with tasteful additions — horns on the song “Twisted Sisters,” for example, or a full-on driving drumbeat serving as the through-line on the pleading rocker “Mississippi Nuthin’” — that don’t take away from the bare-bones approach that has served Shovels and Rope well to this point. When their voices combine — hushed and elegiac on quieter tracks, bold and bombastic on louder ones — it’s easy to picture the construction of each track in a small Charleston studio, babies at their feet and supper inside on the stove.
It’s the soundtrack to life, and it’s one that will never play out, Hearst added.
“We’re creative people, and music is always in our house,” she said. “Our little one is always making up songs, so who knows — maybe we’ll just steal her ideas!”