The beautiful madness of Shovels & Rope

Duo talk Tom Petty, touring with two kids and stealing other people’s stories along the way

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Shovels & Rope at Pickathon 2018
Todd Cooper

Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst, the husband and wife duo behind folk-rock outfit Shovels & Rope, were on their way to play Codfish Hallow, a small barn venue in rural Iowa, when they heard that Tom Petty had died. With spotty cell phone reception and a show to get to, they really couldn’t tell what was going on. 

“We didn’t get the whole story until we were on stage playing that night, interacting with the audience and asking them, ‘What’s up? What happened?,’” Trent says. “There was a sadness in the entire room. You know, maybe everybody might’ve not been the biggest Tom Petty head, but everybody… I feel like what he stood for and the joy that he brought was really something special.”

Catching him at a festival just months before he passed, Hearst calls Petty “the real deal,” and the late artist makes a small cameo, by way of a nod to his first album, on the couple’s fifth record, By Blood, released in April.  

“One hand on the heater/ The other flippin the radio/ Full Moon Fever/ The sun’s coming up/ Hits my heart like a drug/ And when all my wasted efforts are piled in the truck,” the two sing in the closing track “Carry Me Home,” her raspy stretches harmonizing with his urgent pleas. 

The song has its roots in Colorado, where Trent spent some time living with his grandparents in Evergreen. In the early morning, before sunrise, Trent says, he’d scrape the ice off his grandpa’s truck and head to school in freezing temperatures.

“You know, you would have to put your hands on the heater vents,” he says. “And if a song came on [the radio], I don’t know, music just sounded a little bit different then, you felt more alive. I definitely had some moments like that with Tom Petty and I feel like we all have.” 

“Carry Me Home” is one of the more autobiographical songs in the Shovels & Rope catalog, a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the couple behind the music. For the most part, their songs are character-based, intricate stories that mostly draw off Trent’s keen observations of other people’s experiences, Hearst says, admittedly bragging about him.

 “You’re just really good at finding the stories to tell and looking at other people’s lives and robbing them of their stories,” she tells him, with a laugh.

“As a happy family, we don’t really have a bunch of sad things to write about in our songs,” Hearst adds. “We have to look elsewhere and hone in on the stories of others, so we don’t fill the world with a bunch of sugary love songs about how much we love each other.”

Trent’s story-telling prowess shines on By Blood. There’s the story of two friends from high school who grow up to experience a sort of role reversal, the former quarterback trying to come to grips with his friend’s success in “Mississippi Nuthin’.” 

And there’s “C’mon Utah,” which follows a mythical horse named Utah galloping across the desert to return a man to his family in Colorado after being separated by the border wall. The lyrics are currently being turned into a children’s book of the same name, illustrated by the couple’s good friend, New York-based artist Julio Cotto Rivera. For Trent and Hearst, the song and book are a way to start the conversation, to help process world events with their kids but also with themselves. 

“At the end of the day, we stand primarily as parents who love their children and who are interested in the human condition,” Hearst says.  

From Charleston, South Carolina, the duo has been playing as Shovels & Rope since their self-titled debut album was released in 2008. Married the following year, the couple recently welcomed their second child, and are now enjoying the “chaos” that is touring with two small children and performing together.

“It’s madness, but it’s beautiful madness. It’s like camping,” Trent says. 

“It’s everything I ever dreamed of,” Hearst adds.

When they first started out, Trent says, it took some time for the couple to figure out their dynamic, seeing as both had been solely in charge of their past projects. But with Shovels & Rope, and with each other, they’ve both found a home, learning how to operate as a single organism, reading each other’s cues both on stage and in life. 

As vocalists and multi-instrumentalists, Hearst and Trent sing most songs in harmony, switching back and forth between lead and backing vocals while simultaneously trading guitars and drumsticks — sometimes even turns at the keyboard — throughout the entirety of each set. It’s a dynamic and engaging live show, the roots rock beats blending with the folk-styled lyrics. 

But it’s also intimate. Always willing to share the spotlight, they often sing to each other, and maybe even for each other, inviting the audience into their palpable chemistry. 

“Ten years and some great communication and good therapy and the love of our family, we’ve created this symbiotic relationship of give and take,” Hearst says. “It really is a beautiful thing.”  

ON THE BILL: Shovels & Rope with John Paul White. 8 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 22, Ogden Theatre, 935 E. Colfax, Denver. Tickets are $30.