If the moniker Shovels and Rope conjures images of hot sun and hard labor, that’s as it should be. The Charleston, S.C.-based husband-and-wife duo, who performed Wednesday night at the 9:30 Club, performs music the old-fashioned way: by hand, foot and mouth.
“Making something out of nothing with a scratch and a hope / Two old guitars like a shovel and rope,” went a line from the duo’s biographical raison d’etre, “Birmingham.”
In a 45-minute warm-up set for the alt-country band Lucero, Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst multitasked on guitar and a makeshift drum kit rigged with a tambourine and a grab bag of shakers and maracas. A heavy percussive stomp shorn of traditional bass guitar accompaniment has become a familiar sound in the age of the White Stripes and the Black Keys. But whereas those bands fused punk-rock brio to American blues, Trent and Hearst are taken with the idea of doing the same to classic country and folk.
The result is anything but mimicry of the past, however. Set opener “Hail Hail” quoted from Chuck Berry’s “School Days,” but with deconstructive menace: “Well, hail, hail rock-and-roll / I love you till you slit my throat and swallow me whole.”
A Southern Gothic sensibility also permeated the lazily paced “Shank Hill St.,” with its talk of butchers and dark secrets and a “suicide grin,” and Trent’s antique electric guitar dripping in reverb and distortion.
There was little trace of such gloom in Hearst’s high-spirited twang, which recalled those of Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. You could hardly root against her, even as on “O’ Be Joyful,” the title track of the duo’s debut album, she sang of a girl ruining her father’s reputation and cruelly discarding a boy toy. “Who’s Gonna Raise These Babies?,” a cut from Hearst’s solo catalogue, broached the plight of single motherhood with a humorous mixture of defiance and resignation.
Her interaction with Trent, both vocal and visual, was captivating to watch. It was as if the couple had opened their home to the public to watch them flirt, fight and do household chores.
By the end of the set, Trent was drenched in sweat. Indeed, he looked a guy who’d spent his day on the end of a shovel.
Galupo is a freelance writer.