The first time Shovels and Rope came to Memphis in 2011, they were little known outside their Charleston, S.C., home base; just a struggling band playing for tips on a cold, rainy Tuesday night at the P&H Café.
Two and half years later, the group — actually, a duo comprised of husband and wife singer-songwriters Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent — rolls back into town for a highly anticipated show Friday at the Hi-Tone Café with significantly more momentum behind them. The pair recently made their network television debut playing the "Late Show with David Letterman," wowed fans and critics during a series of sold-out shows along the East Coast, and are the subjects of a soon-to-be-released documentary called "The Ballad of Shovels and Rope."
"We're on a hot streak now, but pretty soon the bottom's gonna fall out and everything is going to go back to normal," jokes Hearst. "Really, though, it's been a lot of hard work, a lot of luck, and a lot of good breaks."
The success of Shovels and Rope is particularly gratifying since the group came together almost as an afterthought. Both the Mississippi-bred Hearst and the Colorado-reared Trent had been trying to carve out their own careers as solo singer-songwriters. They joined forces in 2008, recording a side project under their own names.
The LP, called Shovels and Rope (they would later take the title for their stage moniker) signaled the start of a creative partnership been the two musicians, who married the following year. Yet the two still continued to make their own albums, with Hearst's Lions and Lambs, and Trent's The Winner, both coming out in 2010.
"We did take a while before we committed to doing things this way," says Trent. "For a time, we didn't know if we were going to go this route or do solo careers. But we kept getting more opportunities as the duo to stay busy and keep working. Basically, we didn't have any time to think about it. We just kept going with it."
The decision has proved to be a good one for the couple, who took up a nomadic life on the road together, touring endlessly for the next couple years. By the time they sat down to record their second record, O' Be Joyful, the time and miles and shows together had yielded a sound that merged a backporch musical aesthetic with sharp story songs and intertwined harmonies that recalled other great vocal partnerships like Johnny and June, Gram and Emmylou, and John and Exene.
"We were writing a lot while we learning how to play together, and trying to figure out what exactly this thing was going to be," says Trent. "We arranged the songs mostly in the studio; we focused on how to sound on record then we had to figure out how to play them live, which is a whole different animal."
"In a way,' adds Hearst, "we stretched our legs on the record, and restretched our legs in different ways with the songs on stage."
O' Be Joyful, which came out on the Dualtone label, has enjoyed steady attention since its release last summer. The group seems to have been swept up in the wave of attention being given to rootsy Americana acts like Civil Wars and Mumford & Sons, even if they aren't entirely comfortable being placed in that box.
"Actually, we like to think of ourselves as a rock band," notes Trent. "I know we have a lot of songwriter-based elements and we can break it down to being just two voices and a guitar, or even less than that. When our record came out and people started taking interest, there was a lot of roots music love going on and that's definitely had something to do with our good fortune."
"We can do stuff more rock end of things or the troubadour side of things," says Hearst. "Whether we fit perfectly into that (Americana) world or not, as long as those people like our records, then it's great."
The success of O' Be Joyful has set the stage for what could be a major third album breakthrough for the band. That is, if they ever get a chance to record. "We've been touring so much, we've haven't made any plans for a new album, but those thoughts have been lingering lately," says Trent. "We'll see what happens when we get some time off."
The band plans to stay on the road for a while, traveling to Canada and Europe before doing an extended spring tour of the U.S. opening for Memphis roots rockers Lucero.