Listen: O' Be Joyful by Shovel and Ropes

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Article Reviews
O' Be Joyful
Shovels and Rope (Dualtone Music Group, 2012)

The band name suggests a Western movie scene of hanging and burial while the album title sounds like a line from a psalm of praise. On O’ Be Joyful, Shovels and Rope make a noise that is rough and rustic but at the same time downright jubilant. The lyrics tell tales of poverty and hardship that also celebrate a life of love and creativity.

Shovels and Rope is Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, a married couple in their early 30s. From a base in Charleston, South Carolina they travel the country in a van they call their “covered wagon,” banging at two guitars and various pieces of a drum kit.

“Birmingham,” the first track on this album, is a sort of “Ballad of John and Yoko” for the indie age. It tells the story of the couple’s meeting, marriage, and meanderings, including one vicious quarrel that almost ended it all. The song keeps circling back to its refrain, borrowed from the Baptist hymnal: “Rock of ages cleave for me, let me hide myself in thee.” That’s a nod both to the uplifting embrace of Southern tradition and to the sustaining bond of marriage.

Shovels and Rope’s musical elements are rudimentary—acoustic guitar chords, a distorted electric riff, a snare drum thwack, and the occasional banjo, all with lots of space in between. One exception is “Hail Hail,” an ambivalent affirmation of cultural tradition that quotes Chuck Berry’s “Hail Hail Rock and Roll” amid a swirl of New Orleans Dixieland horns.

In the first years of their relationship Trent and Hearst maintained separate careers, with Hearst leaning toward acoustic alt country and Trent going for rock with his band, The Films. Their artistic union was partly inspired by practical considerations, but this music has become a twanging metaphor for the sacrament of matrimony and a testament to its enduring capacity to bring joy out of life’s ordinary sorrow.

This article appeared in the October 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 10, page 50).