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November 8, 2012 12:10 am


To save money, the members of Shovels & Rope have had to reduce their cell plan and leave their dog nearly naked.



Until recently, Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent toured the country in their van, playing 200 shows a year and spending most nights on the queen-sized mattress they'd shoved into the back.

Beneath the mattress rested all their gear, including a few acoustic guitars and a drum set created out of discarded junkyard items. On top of the mattress, the married couple made sure to leave enough room for Townes, their Plott hound.

"We did that for about 2 years," said Hearst, a Mississippi native who sings and speaks with a spunky, twangy accent. "When the mileage got high enough, we decided to get a new vehicle, and instead of getting hotels every night we decided to go with an RV. We're still pretty self-contained.

"It was bittersweet, though," Trent admitted. "I felt like that van was my friend."

"But there's more room for Townes in the RV!" argued Hearst. "Way more room for everybody."

Truth be told, Shovels & Rope doesn't need much room. It's a two-piece band, and its stage show--a wild, sweaty blur of vocal harmony, percussion and furiously strummed guitar--doesn't rely on amplifiers or bulky lighting equipment. It's a small operation. Even so, the sound is huge.

Hearst and Trent first crossed paths in 2005, while both were touring behind their own projects. Trent was playing in a major-label band, the Films, and Hearst was promoting her own songs as an indie-folk solo artist. Although they hit it off, the two didn't resume their friendship until years later, when Trent showed up at Hearst's door with a six-pack of beer and a humble request that they play some Ramones songs together.

Years later, you can hear the Ramones' influence on "O' Be Joyful," Shovels & Rope's debut album. It's an Americana record, steeped in old-school country music and Southern storytelling. There's something undeniably punky about these songs, though, which were recorded in the van, the couple's own kitchen and several motel rooms.

In a year that saw high-profile releases from the Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers, "O' Be Joyful" has managed to make its own splash in the Americana genre. It's dirty and imperfect, the way Americana used to be, and the songs shine brighter than the product. As a result, things have been going well for Shovels & Rope, and the RV isn't the band's only recent upgrade.

"People are actually at the shows now," Heart said, only half joking. "During the first six months of our first tour, every venue we played was a new place for us. We never made any money. It was wintertime and scary and very dramatic, and it took a lot out of us.

"But I think it made us gangsta. We tightened up our game, got real professional about what we're doing and learned how to make sure people hear our music. Luckily, they seem to enjoy it."

Hearst and Trent have been enjoying themselves, too.

"Sometimes, it can be like a Norman Rockwell postcard," she says of the touring life. "We were driving under the Oklahoma sky last night. You know: big full moon, all the stars in the sky, open road. It was awesome."

Andrew Leahey is in Nashville, waiting for an RV of his own.

What: Shovels & Rope Where: The Southern Cafe and Music Hall, 103 S. First St., Charlottesville. When: Wednesday, Nov. 14 at 8 p.m. Cost: $10 Info:,

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