By Timothy Dwenger
Family is a beautiful, dynamic and engrossing thing. It can be the light of our lives and, at times, the very thing that threatens to undermine our sense of self and well-being. The laughter and joy that is so often paired with the idea of family can leave in its wake profound stress and sadness. Unfortunately that’s a reality of life and one that some are more prepared to deal with than others. Some run toward the hard times in life, while others seek to slip away for anywhere from a moment to a lifetime.
For Shovels & Rope, the husband and wife duo of Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst, family has morphed from an idea to an all-encompassing thing that literally follows them everywhere they go and they have embraced it completely. Today they share their home and tour bus with their one-year-old daughter, Louisiana Jean, and while that must bring joy, anyone who’s had a child knows the stresses that can be associated with caring for a tender young life.
“A good nanny is crucial,” laughed Hearst during a recent conversation that she and Trent had with The Marquee as they toured the East Coast. “We have a very understanding touring crew, everybody on our crew loves the baby. We protect their ears from screaming by keeping the baby happy.” Trent elaborated when he said “we are not a hard partying bunch so I think that everybody kinda welcomes her and I think she makes everybody feel good and she keeps morale high.”
While this window into their unorthodox domestic life is rose-colored, in 2015 things were a little different for the expecting couple. “Leading up to when our daughter was born my parents were living with us,” Trent explained. “My dad has Alzheimer’s. My parents had moved out of their house in Michigan and they were riding around in an RV. They came for a visit one day and ended up staying because it was becoming a little bit more obvious that they needed to re-evaluate their plans. It was kind of intense as you can imagine. We were trying to figure out what the plan was going to be with them in the long-term. We were getting ready for the arrival, and also trying to still go out and do runs of shows. We were in and out of town a lot. It was a hectic time and we were trying to continue to do our job and get ready to put out a record. There were a lot of personal things going on.”
The stresses in their lives weren’t limited to family as Hearst explained. “Our friend was killed. There was violence in our city; particularly that shooting at the Emmanuel Church and the Walter Scott case. It just kinda kept coming on and not just to us, but to our whole community.”
In the midst of the chaos that swirled around them, Hearst and Trent were writing the album that became the recently released Little Seeds and there was no way to avoid the realities of the world that surrounded them. “It’s a pretty personal record and a little bit different from records we’ve made in the past because we are character writers and that’s been our style,” Trent said. “The way that we tend to approach songwriting is creating a character and creating a setting and taking that approach but the real stuff was happening in a way that ended up creeping into the writing on this one.”
In what turned out to be a great thing for their band, the necessities of living with a newborn and aging parents forced the couple to forge new ground in their songwriting partnership. While they used to write mostly independently and only relied on the other from time-to-time, with this album they knew that co-writing was essential to success. “On past albums we wrote together, but we wrote together in a different way. When we worked on a song together I would have the root of the song and I would bring it to Michael and say ‘Michael do something with this’ and he would, on his own time, not in the same room as me, write out a part, put it in the song and bring it back and say ‘How does this work’ and I’d be like ‘Ooh yeah, I like that’ or ‘I like that but let’s do this.’ It didn’t necessarily happen in real time,” Hearst revealed. “But with this one a lot of times we were sitting in a room with all the unfinished work that we had put in the ‘work on this together’ pile and just going through songs one at a time line-by-line in a way that we hadn’t done before because even when we were collaborating all these years we still had our own approaches to song writing and we don’t have the same patterns or the same writing environments so it was interesting to see this partnership that you didn’t think could possibly be more intimate, is even more so, because of the time constraints that were put on our art when we had a newborn.”
The result is a stunningly personal album that combines the best of the character driven, shout and holler blues that Shovels & Rope is built on, with heartfelt songs that clearly come from real life experiences. The thirteen song album closes with a pair of songs that bring everything into crystal clear focus. The aptly named “Eric’s Birthday” recalls the tragedy of their good friend’s murder by having the victim’s mother relate his unique birth story, while “This Ride” aims to put the pains of life in perspective. When all is said and done it is clear that not only is family an integral part of Trent and Hearst’s life together, it is, in fact, the glue that holds it all together. Through their songwriting, and their undeniable chemistry on stage, the couple has proven to those that are lining up to listen, that while life is hard, it’s worth every single moment.
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