Shovels & Rope
Shovels & Rope
As the Brontë sister wrote, “The ties that bind us to life are tougher than you imagine.” Shovels & Rope, the musical duo of Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst, embody that bond. Married for a decade, their covenant extends to blood and beyond: as parents, bandmates, and creative collaborators who can now add the pursuits of festival curators, film subjects, and children’s book authors to that mighty list. Having released four studio albums and two collaborative projects (Busted Jukebox, Vol. 1 & 2) since 2008, Trent and Hearst have built their reputation on skill, sweat, and, yes, blood. Now, with the tough and elegant new record By Blood, as well as their High Water Festival in their hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, “Shovels & Rope: The Movie”, and the picture book “C’mon Utah!”, Shovels & Rope are primed for their biggest year yet.
Accomplished musicians in their own right prior to dedicating themselves full time to Shovels & Rope in 2011, Trent and Hearst have made a career together by seizing opportunities and never resting on their laurels or being complacent in doing something just because. Carving out a niche in the music world with strong, roots/indie/folk/rock-inspired efforts like 2012’s O’ Be Joyful, 2014’s Swimmin’ Time, and 2016’s inward-looking Little Seeds, as well as their powerful live show, far-reaching tours, and myriad TV and festival appearances, Shovels & Rope have earned the right to follow their own muse. And so, in an effort to satisfy their numerous creative interests and adapt to a changing industry, Trent and Hearst have firmly planted their flag in realms beyond recording and releasing albums.
The third annual High Water Festival curated by the band will be held over a weekend in April and will bring 10,000 fans to a park in North Charleston to witness a lineup of artists comparable to some of the best in the country—including Leon Bridges, The Head & The Heart, Lord Huron, Jenny Lewis, Mitski, and Shovels & Rope themselves. High Water benefits select organizations and water conservation charities in Charleston and aims to avoid the feeling of corporate inundation and discomfort that plagues many big-name music events. Trent and Hearst work with production companies and agencies to book acts, then serve as on-site hosts in addition to performing throughout the weekend.
“Shovels & Rope: The Movie” is a performance film that has been expanded into feature-length with an external narrative weaving through and connecting the live performances. Directed by their frequent visual collaborator, Curtis Millard, the ‘live show’ portion of the filming took place over two nights at The Orange Peel in Asheville, North Carolina, during the tour for Little Seeds. The rest of the film was shot in various locations in and around the Southeast. The result can be described as a David Lynch meets John Hughes (a fun, silly, and tongue-in-cheek film for fans to enjoy that also represents the band at the peak of their live power.)
The children’s book, “C’mon Utah!”, sets the lyrics from the new song of the same name to illustrations by the artist Julio Cotto. It is an inspirational story, set in the future aftermath of the building and subsequent destruction of the southern border wall. The separated and displaced families are figuring out how to start to put the pieces back together. Communities form to organize and support each other. The parents in these communities tell stories to lift the children spirits and maintain hope through sadness and despair. One such story is about a magic horse named Utah who has the power to help to reunite them with their families on the other side of the devastation. The book is intended as a conversation starter for parents and children to discuss immigration and diversity.
Trent and Hearst have learned to juggle their busy schedules by relying on each other as well as their team, and by seizing every chance for efficiency. They realized one such opportunity by building a modest studio at home, which is where they began to record By Blood in May of 2018. The new space in their back yard provides a sanctuary where their gear can remain at the ready, a luxury conducive to their creative process—especially when sharing a home with kids.
By Blood’s ten songs are vignettes that focus on vulnerable, human characters laid bare, while the textures are gritty, sweeping, and profound. These are tales of inherently good yet incomplete people whose faults are on the table in plain sight, a trait that endears the subjects to the listener and that the songwriters recognize in themselves.
The first single “The Wire” is about accepting your own faults and learning to say you’re sorry. Its stylishly minimal verses and wall of sound chorus recall some raw, girl-group era drama as well as timeless rock and roll. As the gorgeous, dark lullaby of the title track brings the album to its end, the beautiful, cinematic journey of By Blood has left its mark.
And so, bound by blood, by sweat, and by love—of creativity, craft, and family—Shovels & Rope are coming out swinging. From the bind in their band name itself to the shared life they have built from scratch, it’s clear that Trent and Hearst are in constant pursuit of their best selves—together.
“My school was a juke joint/From a kid till I was grown/And blues is really/All I ever known”
“Ain’t Gonna Take No Mess”
Take one glance at the iconic tintype photograph which serves as the cover to his new album, Benton County Relic, and you know immediately that Cedric Burnside is the real deal. “When I first saw it, I thought I looked like an outlaw,” he laughs.
The 39-year-old still lives on several acres not far from the Holly Springs, Mississippi, home where he was raised by “Big Daddy,” his grandfather, the late singer/songwriter/guitarist R.L. Burnside whom Cedric famously played with, just as his own father, drummer Calvin Jackson, did. Cedric was literally born to the blues, more specifically, the “rhythmically unorthodox” Hill country variant which emerged from Mississippi, where he grew up surrounded (and influenced) by Junior Kimbrough, Jessie May Hemphill and Otha Turner, as well as delta musicians T-Model Ford and Paul “Wine” Jones.
Grammy-nominated in 2015 for Best Blues Album for the Cedric Burnside Project’s Descendants of Hill Country, as well as the recipient of the Blues Music Awards honor as Drummer of the Year for four consecutive years, Cedric’s latest album offers a showcase for his electric and acoustic guitar, recording 26 tracks in just two days with drummer/slide guitarist Brian Jay in the latter’s Brooklyn home studio in a rush of creativity. It’s his first release for Single Lock Records, the Florence, Alabama label headquartered across the Tennessee River from the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and responsible for critically acclaimed records by John Paul White, Nicole Atkins, Dylan LeBlanc and St. Paul & the Broken Bones.
And while Cedric humbly refers to himself in the album’s title, the music within is anything but ancient, the rich tradition of Hill country blues dragged kicking and screaming into the modern-day with crackling electricity amid its nod to life’s essentials. If the blues has traditionally been about getting through hard times, Benton County Relic offers the kind of deep baring of the soul that enables us to transcend oppression, whether in the 19th century or in the precarious present.
There’s blood on these 12 tracks, from the matter-of-fact recitation of his poverty-stricken childhood without running water, radio or TV in “We Made It” (“I come from nothin’/I done been lower than low/I keep my head straight/No matter how low I go”) and the description of a “Typical Day” (“I wake up in the mornin’/Sun shinin’ on my face/I drink a cup of coffee/I might roll me a J”) to the loss of family endured in “Hard to Stay Cool” and the unrequited passion of “There is So Much.”
“I write my music according to how I live my life, the things I’m going through at the time,” insists Burnside, who lost both his parents, an uncle and his younger brother Cody over the last few years. “I love music so much. It’s really something I can turn to when I’m feeling down and out, and in pain. Whether it’s the heartache of breaking up with a girlfriend, or frustration at a dispute with a family member.”
Burnside has brought a music that started as an expression of grief and a will to survive into a modern-day art form that is both timely and timeless, a glimpse of myth and insight into the human condition. “Back in the day, it wasn’t heard as music, but more like ‘somebody help me, I want to get out of this situation,’” says Cedric. “These days, anybody can have the blues. Some people deal with loss by going out and getting drunk or even killing themselves. The blues is about surviving through those hard times, telling the world what you’ve been through, and how you came out of it.”
Cedric’s blues cover a wide range of different emotions. “Give It to You” is an expression of pure sexual desire, a traditional blues trope. Burnside explains, “That kind of stuff still goes on in the world today,” he says. “It has happened to me, and I’m sure it has happened to a lot more people. Whether it’s politically correct or not, it’s the truth. And that’s how I write my music. It might seem harsh or messed-up, but it’s real.”
“Call on Me” is a song penned for his three daughters, ages 13 to 17, about being there emotionally, if not always in person, given his hectic touring schedule. “I just want them to know, what I do is not just for the fans, but for them, too.”
The traditional “Death Bell Blues” is a tribute to his own “Big Daddy,” R.L. Burnside, who used to perform the song, once covered by Muddy Waters and countless others. “I did it the same way ‘Big Daddy’ did it,” he says. “I want to let the people know where my music comes from.”
On “Ain’t Gonna Take No Mess,” Cedric insists he’s performing the music he wants, regardless of what anybody else says. “I’ve been playing almost 30 years now,” he exclaims. “It’s who I am, what I am. I am Hill country blues. This is my whole life, and I’m not going to listen to anyone who tells me what I can and can’t do. I just thank God that Single Lock Records let me be with my music.”
Cedric has both played and recorded with the North Mississippi Allstars (Luther Dickinson gave him his first electric guitar), Widespread Panic, Jimmy Buffett, Bobby Rush, Hubert Sumlin, Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. He was also featured playing drums alongside Samuel L. Jackson in Craig Brewer’s 2006 feature film, Black Snake Moan, which was in part a tribute to his grandfather R.L. and other iconic bluesmen.
Now planning to tour with collaborator Brian Jay to promote the new album, Cedric eschews politics in favor of the personal. “I know there’s a lot going on in the world,” he says. “But I try to give it all to God and let Him handle it. Politics divides people. The blues brings them together. A bluesman has to find a way to make it through.”
Cedric Burnside isn’t content with just making it through. On Benton County Relic, he brings the blues alive for a new generation of fans weaned on the likes of White Stripes and the Black Keys. And why not? That’s all he’s ever known.