THERE'S THIS TALE about Shovels and Rope. Story goes, Cary Ann Hearst's immense talent for making music was eclipsed only by her lousy taste in suitors. Dragged in and out of countless musical acts alongside a series of less-talented beaus, Hearst was languishing in front of dwindling crowds in long-forgotten South Carolina honky-tonks. At some point, Justin Townes Earle came calling with the sort of offer any minuscule musician would kill for—a real band, a world tour, and a steady paycheck—yet Hearst politely declined. Turns out she had met a new guy, and despite all those years, and all those forgettable bands, they were going to play a little music together.
Truth might be trumped by fiction, but the roots of Shovels and Rope did take hold over a decade ago in Charleston as Hearst crossed paths with fellow musician (and future husband) Michael Trent. For the pair of weathered, restless musicians, it was a snug fit. Trent punished the drums. Hearst did the same to the guitar. And they sang with unbridled passion—not to the crowd, but to each other, merely granting the audience a chance to lean in close and eavesdrop.
Before they could afford a kick drum, Shovels and Rope took a boot to a tambourine. The duo toured relentlessly alongside the likes of Townes Van Zandt (not the deceased singer, but their dog of the same name) and Jonny Corndawg (a real person, not a dog), foregoing the comforts of domesticity for a stranger's sofa. When it came time to take promotional photographs for 2012's breakthrough album O' Be Joyful, the pair naturally posed atop a sturdy heap of equipment inside the claustrophobic clutter of their van.
The recently released Swimmin' Time is a seamless extension of O' Be Joyful. It's a natural evolution and expansion of their sound—their barren drums/guitar/voice setup is swapped for an endless array of warm instrumentation—but it holds steadfast to Shovels and Rope's road-weary authenticity, a declaration of war against the overly whimsical faux-folk of their peers. Torched bridges, biblical floods, and the devil himself are all fixtures of Swimmin' Time, and there is little adorability in mournful refrains such as, "I hit my kids but I don't mean to/I'm a dead dog lying on the sidewalk/Another victim of the mortgage bubble pop" (from the bellowed "Evil"). Yet beneath the album's overwhelming tower of darkness are small sprouts of hope: the cracked-voiced bedroom poetry of "Pinned," the howling campfire blues of "Fish Assassin," and especially "Mary Ann and One Eyed Dan" which sounds like the greatest love song ever written about two Tom Waits characters (a waitress employed by the circus and a war-vet writer missing an eye, naturally).
Throughout Swimmin' Time it becomes evident that Shovels and Rope's aim was to make an album that sounded like everything: a ramshackle musical pawn shop of skittish rockabilly, fire-and-brimstone gospel, roadhouse country, and enough sinful rock 'n' roll to scarlet the cheeks of any respectable churchgoer. These descriptions would all be good places to start, but even then, they'd box Shovels and Rope in. Swimmin' Time is a mass baptismal, converting even non-believers to the Fugazi of the fixin'-to set—a band whose motto reads, "It ain't what you got, it's what you make."
That, I believe.