Thursday night, Charleston came to Chrystie Street by way of the Bowery Ballroom. On tour supporting their latest release, O' Be Joyful, the South Carolina-based duo Shovels & Rope brought what one reviewer has referred to as a "music-from-the-back-porch country sound" to a bunch of hipsters who probably haven't been on a back porch in years. But no matter. Because Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst's self-described "jamboree" -- an onslaught of rough-around-the-edges foot-stomping duets -- will work in any venue, and on any crowd that likes good, fun music played by people who are obviously having a lot of fun themselves.
Theirs is a ramshackle sound, the product of a couple of guitars, a snare drum, cymbal, harmonica, tambourine, rattle, and keyboard that the married couple seamlessly switch between and each play with a kind of physical recklessness that belies a hammerlock grip on the locomotive thrust of each song. They call themselves Shovels & Rope because of their inclination toward murder ballads (bury 'em with a shovel, hang 'em from a rope) but the music is pure joy, played by a duo that seems very much in love. When they lock eyes and share a microphone -- which they often do -- you wouldn't be surprised if they actually kissed. (Which they didn't. But they could have.)
They say it's hard to sing melody while playing drums -- that only a few have ever really gotten it right. Think Levon Helm. But Ms. Hearst, whose throaty-with-a-touch-of-sweet delivery dominates most of the duo's singing, somehow makes it look easy even as she throws the added challenge of playing keyboards with one hand on top of playing the snare with the other. Whoever was playing what, the couple rolled right on through their modest oeuvre, nailing their breakout song Birmingham (Brooklyn cheered when "[she] pulled her covered wagon off the BQE"), the awesomely-named Kemba's Got the Cabbage Moth Blues, Boxcar (an ode to Bonnie and Clyde), and the soulful Magdelina.
A lot of shows at Bowery Ballroom can be a little testosterone-heavy, but Shovels & Rope drew equal parts men and women. The thing was, though, even the ladies were focused more on Ms. Hearst than on the modestly tattooed in a plaid shirt and a trucker hat Mr. Trent. "I love a chick on drums," said my friend Mindy. "She probably eats him for breakfast every day," added Susan. "That's the kind of girl who wins an arm-wrestling competition against a bunch of dudes."
Mr. Trent brings holds up his end of the harmonies while delivering the occasional bout of transcendent finger-picking guitar, but it's Ms. Hearst who you can't take your eyes off of--and whose fifty-watt smile and exuberant singing leave one in a jumble while trying to put her in context. A rockabilly Dolly Parton? Meg White on amphetamines? An unbridled Loretta Lynn? Lucinda Williams if she were happy? Whatever she is, it's pretty obvious that the two of them are the reincarnation of Johnny and June Carter Cash, with a dose of punk thrown for good measure. (There was some debate among my friends if Ms. Hearst's 80s Midwest-soccer-Mom feathered hairdo was Brooklyn ironic or just Southern. Whatever the case, it worked. Sometimes, wrong is right in fashion.)
There's nothing more aggravating than fake bashfulness, but when it's real, you can't help but feel good feelings for someone who's actually sharing their amazement at their blessings with you right there in the moment. "We went on TV last night," Ms. Hearst said to the crowd early on, referring to their appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman. "We tried to pretend like everything was cool, but we were really excited." When someone in the crowd passed up a couple of shots, they gamely downed them. Then, Ms. Hearst again: "New York City just bought us a drink! And now that's we've drunk a bunch of whiskey, we're going to play some religious music." And just like Johnny Cash, who also sang about murder and religion with equal if indistinguishable fervor, they were back at it.
Shovels & Rope doesn't have as universally appealing a sound as their South-of-the-Mason-Dixon-line counterparts Alabama Shakes, but it's pretty obvious that Mr. Trent and Ms. Hearst are on a similar trajectory, and are going to be playing a lot more shows in New York and its environs over the coming months and years. "Next stop: Webster Hall," said friend-of-a-friend and music reviewer Jaime Widder as Ms. Hearst curtseyed after one particular crowd-pleaser. See you there.