Country and rock music come together infectiously, joyfully in Shovels & Rope.
“O’ Be Joyful,” the debut album from the Charleston, S.C.-based duo, is so justly named. In the title song from that 2012 release, banjo and handclaps dance alongside fuzzy garage-rock riffs and the sweetly blending voices of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent.
“Ain’t it good to be alive,” the married couple sings in the album’s title song. “Ain’t it nice to be fighting on the winning side.”
Shovels & Rope’s Voodoo Music + Arts Experience last fall is one of numerous gigs the duo has played in New Orleans since it began touring in 2010. Hearst remembers Voodoo Experience in part because, as she put it, “that’s the day I murdered ‘Johnny 99’ in front of everybody.”
However flawed Hearst’s performance of the latter Bruce Springsteen song may have been, Shovels & Rope’s afternoon set at Voodoo was a high-spirited highlight of the festival.
In addition to their vocal harmonies, Hearst and Trent both played guitars that day and took turns banging their kick drum-snare drum set-up. And the vintage-looking red dress Hearst wore served as a visual expression of her musical fieriness.
At Voodoo Experience, Hearst took a moment to recite the various New Orleans venues Shovels & Rope played in the past few years. The list begins with the tiny Circle Bar and continues through the Hi-Ho Lounge, One Eyed Jacks and Tipitina’s. Shovels & Rope returns to Tipitina’s Wednesday, Feb. 19, as the headlining act.
Before the duo made its New Orleans debut at the Circle Bar, the prospect of performing in that city intimidated Hearst.
“When I was first coming out into the world, I felt like New Orleans might be the most challenging place to play,” she said last week from Charleston. “Just because of the natural music aficionado-ness of the community there.”
On the contrary, she found New Orleans to be a dream date.
“It was the most generous and gracious place to play,” she said.
In addition to being appreciated there for their talent, Hearst and Trent experienced an act of communal kindness in New Orleans. Local musicians on a bill with them at the Hi-Ho Lounge donated their earnings from the show to Shovels & Rope so the pair could get their broken van repaired.
“We played at the Hi-Ho on Ash Wednesday,” Trent recalled. “First of all, we didn’t think anybody was going to come out. Everybody told us, ‘Nobody does anything on Ash Wednesday.’ But everybody did show up. And then all of the other bands gave us their cut because we had van troubles and we were the only traveling act that night. That blew us away. That was such an amazing move.”
“I thought,” ” Hearst said, “ ‘My goodness. These people don’t even know us, but they’re happy to help.’ They said, ‘Hey, you guys. Get your van fixed and good luck with the rest of your tour.’ ”
One of the local bands on the bill that night at the Hi-Ho, the nationally rising Hurray for the Riff Raff, is joining Shovels & Rope on tour in February and March.
“We’ve did a few gigs with Hurray for the Riff Raff and we made fast friends with them,” Trent said. “They’re such wonderful people.”
“It’s great to see people who we like personally,” Hearst said, “who we know work hard and genuinely love music and make great music, get a chance to do it on a bigger scale. It’s awesome.”