08/26/2014 12:14 pm ET Updated Oct 26, 2014

Digging Deep on Swimmin' Time , Shovels & Rope Kick Some Grass

For a married couple of countrified rock 'n' rollers who stick to the bare essentials while taking turns banging the beaten drums and trading off other instruments onstage that look like hand-me-downs, Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent don't need a lot to keep them happy. 

Blessed with a sense of humor that's wickedly morbid enough to name themselves after a pair of key components in murder ballads, the duo known as Shovels & Rope would have you believe not much has changed in their lives since the release of their so-called "debut" album two years ago. 

Mixing work with pleasure during a rainy summer in their adopted hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, they managed to fit in a few favorite leisurely activities like sewing (her) and fishing (him). 

"And mowing the grass," they both blurted over the phone on Aug. 11 before Hearst added a touch of southern spice as tasty as shrimp and grits. "We mow the grass a lot. Kind of like, you know, crazy people doing like occupational therapy. Occupational therapeutic lawn mowin'."

That could've been the name of their next album, but Swimmin' Time just might work out. Now that they're caught in a what-have-you-done-for-us-lately vise-grip, Hearst and Trent seem unaffected by the squeeze play while promoting the Aug. 26 Dualtone follow-up to the surprisingly successful O' Be Joyful, which made a splash when it dropped on July 31, 2012. 

Once R&R did its job, Hearst and Trent knew they had to go back to the requisite rehearsing, turning new songs from the album tour-ready. After playing selected dates with Old Crow Medicine Show, Shovels & Rope were scheduled to make their Grand Ole Opry debut, also on Aug. 26. (Shovels & Rope, from left: Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent.)

While they expand their musical horizons, with Hearst learning the accordion and Trent trying the steel pedal and implementing other sonic accoutrements and tricks of the trade, they switch off on the battered drum kit, grungy guitars and cutting-edgy keyboards that drip with primordial ooze and aahs. 

Other than being able to build his own home recording studio and making a few alterations, Trent said the vision for Shovels & Rope hasn't changed dramatically as he continues the dual role of producer/engineer.

"I think we just keep doing what we've been doing," the former Denver resident said. "We were surprised at how O' Be Joyful went over and we didn't really do a whole lot different this time around with this record. So I don't know, our game plan is the same."
Added Hearst: "Yep, put a record out and tour like crazy." 

Would you expect anything different from two hard-working thirty-somethings who are determined to stay true to each other -- and their craft -- after significantly raising Shovels & Rope's profile the past 24 months? 

There were appearances at prestigious festivals (Hangout, Bonnaroo, Newport), television (Letterman, Austin City Limits, with Conan scheduled for Sept. 3) and starring roles in a film documentary, The Ballad of Shovels & Rope, which had been in the works since their friends the Moving Pictures Boys began shooting footage in 2010.

Calling it a "loving portrayal," Hearst has been happy with the reaction to the film during stops along the festival circuit before its Charleston premiere at the Terrace Theater on Aug. 18. 

"Makes us a little bit shy," added Hearst, whose gift of gab indicates she's anything but that. "There's nothing really ugly or mean-spirited in it. It's a very loving, beautiful thing and I think if we ever do have a family, won't it be wonderful to be able to look back at that, you know, with little ones and with the old people in our lives and kind of remember. I think its value to us will be even more intrinsic in the distant future." 

Asked about possible new additions to the family, the wry, measured Trent asked, "Like, uh, little people that look like us?"

Hearst, now 34, broke in with a quick update about her 36-year-old hubby: "Michael's not pregnant yet but he's trying real hard. He's taking his folic acid. I've asked him to quit drinkin' and he says, 'I'm drinkin' for two!' "
Seriously, though, a family has always been part of their grand design, as Hearst maintained in our 2012 interview before the O' Be Joyful release when she said, "We are determined to live a normal life and have the benefit of raising kids and not missing out on that."

"We just don't know exactly when," Trent said this time around, their wide-open career path of opportunities staring at them like a six-lane interstate blacktop. 

"That's one of those superstitious things I don't want to jinx," added Hearst, who puts value in "kind of about everything" having to do with dumb luck, twists of fate and Lord knows what else. "That's exactly what I'm talking about. ... We'll just let God work that out in his own time."

For now, their traveling companions on the road include Townes the Dog (as billed in the liner notes) and a couple of crew members and tour manager as they enjoy another major perk of becoming successful artists -- "your run-of-the-mill gray rock 'n' roll tour bus" that they lease, Hearst said.

Not that they are considering adding backup touring musicians -- "What a miserable job that would be for somebody," Hearst said jokingly -- but the bus does ease the rigors of the road somewhat as Shovels & Rope motor into more headlining dates.

As a supporting act for the Lumineers on New Year's Eve 2012 at the Ogden Theatre in Denver, Hearst said she was "sick as a dog" with the stomach flu, but a coonskin cap on her head and the o' be joyful look of happiness on that face during the joint encore after midnight concealed that fact beautifully. Shovels & Rope will play the Ogden again on Nov. 15, this time as the closer with former OCMS matinee idol Willie Watson opening. (Shovels & Rope with the Lumineers' Neyla Pekarek.)

More responsibility often is accompanied by fear factors that can weigh heavily on artists such as Hearst and Trent, who presently laugh it off. The superstitious half of this duo may not care about sports, but her spouse already knew how to deal with a fictitious hex that plagues athletes and musicians alike.

"I think what's good about us is this is actually our third record," he said, counting 2008's Shovels & Rope, released under the billing Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, as their joint intro to the roots world. "We kind of tricked everybody into thinking (O' Be Joyful) was our first record. And so in that way it was all a big part of our master plan to avoid the sophomore jinx."

Regardless of the number, Swimmin' Time is Shovels & Rope's most riveting musical adventure to date. Delving deeper, Hearst points out there's more to what "sounds like a happy-go-lucky title," suggesting "a maritime apocalyptic situation" lies ahead for listeners. But others can relate to that sinking feeling, too.

An individual facing life or death can flail away in order to keep from drowning even without plunging into a lake, ocean or rampaging river that threatens to overflow its banks.

Trent credited their "buddies in The Made Shop" for designing Swimmin' Time's album cover, a simple symbol of rescue in a sea of troubled waters. If only that life preserver was made to inflate, he offered.

While acknowledging stress sometimes goes with success, Hearst refuses to become the cliche of a frazzled artist who goes off the deep end.

"That kind of pressure is real dangerous," she said, knowing expectations to up the ante often exist. "The pressure, if anything, that we've put on ourselves is to stay honest and stay well and just make sure you can continue to do it because it's a real fun job and it's got a high burnout factor, and pace is important like in any marathon. And so is keeping our heads about us, one foot in front of the other and humbly accepting all the awesome things that are coming our way without presumption." 

Asked if they rely on anyone to help them maintain that even keel, Hearst emerged from the dark side with a light-hearted observation: "We're not that rich and famous," she said with a laugh.

Trent mentioned making their crew work two jobs on the road, including tour manager/sound technician Chico, who actually does more than double duty. "He's our part-time psychologist and marriage counselor on the road," he said, making them both crack up (in a ha-ha way, of course).

Hearst did admit that "you can still feel a little bit of like the strangeness that comes with some success in show business," so they let their small entourage of longtime friends and memories of humble beginnings provide a moral compass.

"We're in our 30s, we got our heads about us pretty well," she said. "We've been through this dog and pony show in the music business longer than maybe a lot of the average people our age. But the people that we live with on our bus, and the people that we travel with and that we spend time with are like real genuine and wonderful, no-bullshit kind of people to have in your life."

While allowing that they take occasional breaks from their 24/7 existence that began years before their 2009 marriage and official 2010 pairing as Shovels & Rope, Trent said, "We actually enjoy spending time together," letting his wife cut in to return to the mowing theme.

"Maintaining the yard is really one hobby we do together," she said.

Yet the bond began with music, and that's not likely to end any time soon either.

Swimmin' Time is more rambunctious than O' Be Joyful, with Nathan Koci's ballsy brass now augmented by a trombone on the funereal "Ohio" and what Hearst called "mean organ" sounds that replicate buzz-sawing electric guitars on "Bridge on Fire" and "Evil."

Already setting the pace with their live shows, Shovels & Rope figured it was time to increase the intensity in the studio. "After playing those (O' Be Joyful) songs for a couple years, if you go back and listen to the record, you're like, 'Wow, this is slow. This does not go with what we're doing live,' " Trent said. "We still stand by the record and think it's cool but the live show is definitely amped up little bit. And so we were just aware of that, I think, making this record."

And while they take a dim view on tunes such as "Stono River Blues" and "Thresher," about a failed submarine mission in 1963, Hearst and Trent made a conscious effort to find positivity in other actual news events for songs such as the redemptive "After the Storm" (upon seeing television reports about the devastating tornadoes in the Oklahoma City area last year) and "Save the World."

Then there are light and breezy character studies such as the finger-snapping ode to falling hook, line and sinker for the outdoors in the guise of Hearst's biological father Michael, who calls himself the "Fish Assassin," and "Mary Ann & One Eyed Dan," its sweeping boy-girl "so long" chorus harking back to the feel-good '50s.

Such a wide spectrum just might represent what Hearst calls a lifelong "journey and all of its ups and downs."

Their rising tide of a career reached one high-water mark in 2013, when Shovels & Rope performed at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, where they won Emerging Artist and Song of the Year ("Birmingham") at the Americana Music Awards. Those prizes are now proudly displayed in each of their mother's living rooms, but Hearst and Trent won't settle for the comforts of home.

"There's never any point where we thought, 'Oh we've made it now. I guess we can just sit around on our fat white asses for the rest of our lives and never write another song,' " said Hearst, a native Mississippian who grew up in the Music City.

There'll be plenty of time for that later. For now, though, these backyard lovebirds are content to watch their grass roots grow.

Publicity photo by Leslie Ryan McKellar. Concert photos by Michael Bialas.