Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst, the husband-and-wife duo who make up the Americana-style band Shovels & Rope, moved to Charleston in the late 1990s/early 2000s. Between road trips and music gigs, they call the Holy City home, and here they share what they love about the Lowcountry.
Cary Ann, you’re from Mississippi/Nashville and Michael, you’re from Denver—what brought you to Charleston?
M—I moved here for music actually. I moved out here with my band from Denver in 2003/2004, something like that.
CA—And I came here as a college student in ’97, and after I graduated from C of C (College of Charleston) I just stuck around, because by then I had a pretty cool band and we were playing in bars.
How did you come up with the band name?
CA—Well our first record that we made was called "Shovels & Rope," and when Michael and I put all of our eggs in one basket and decided to consolidate our talents and our catalog, it seemed an appropriate name for a couple of reasons. One, it was the basic tools that you need, there’s two of us, the shovels and rope, and it was like a basic, "whatever’s laying around" kind of utilitarian vibe to the name. Also, since we had called our first record "Shovels & Rope," we hoped maybe it would be an easier transition—there might be five or six people who recognize the name (laughing). The name of the band to a certain degree describes our work ethos—or you could say that we’re just a bunch of tools.
How has living in the Holy City influenced your music?
M—I don’t know, I would just say mostly we’re been on the road, so probably over the past couple of years ...
CA—We’ve been homesick for it ...
M—Yeah, we have been pretty homesick just thinking about it. I don’t know ... it’s a vibrant, beautiful place to live and the music scene is definitely thriving.
CA—When we were writing "Swimmin' Time," living around here near the water, kind of that geographic nearness to the water influenced a lot of the ways we referenced the water in our new record. We just love to live here—it’s a place where Michael and I find peace.
How has traveling influenced your music?
CA—Well, it keeps us in a nice, exhausted state, in a hallucinatory, kind of creative state, where you’re too tired to resist having weird thoughts, and have the discipline to write them down, and they turn into good songs. I think "O’ Be Joyful" was influenced more by our travels because we were writing it as we were traveling and recording the record as we were traveling, and it just kind of worked from there. The things that you see and the people that you meet and the weird circumstances that you find yourself in inadvertently dictate your creativity in some ways.
What are your favorite places in Charleston?
CA—I’m partial to Queensborough Loop, I like driving around it.
M—We live out on Johns Island, so we kind of like to stay on the island a lot when we’re home.
What is the best place to listen to music? To play music?
CA—The Pour House is where we cut our teeth. If there’s a great band coming to town, like an up-and-coming band, The Pour House holds about 350 people, or something to that degree, (so) you’re going to get a really intimate rock-’n’-roll show there.
The Music Farm downtown holds about 1,000 people, and that’s a great rock ’n’ roll … we really love City Hall (Charleston Music Hall). There are two different vibes, one is standing and rocking and the other one is sitting and rocking. You can see different shows in different places.
The Royal American is always fun for the young and hungry bands that are coming around.
What are the best places for nightlife?
CA—Oh, man …
M—We don’t go out. (Laughing ...)
CA—Our 25-year-old selves would tell you a list of bars. … You know, I learned to drink in AC’s, I haven’t been there in a really long time, but it holds a special place in our hearts from when Michael and I were young, young rockers all dressed in black. We enjoyed many years there, and Gene’s doesn’t have live music as much, but that’s always a good place in West Ashley to go and get a real local vibe, you know?
Is there anything off-the-beaten path that you would recommend for visitors in Charleston?
CA—Downtown is so much fun and there’s so much to do and see, but I feel like Charleston’s real beauty is kind of on the Byway …
M—If you have a chance to get in a boat, any of the little hub or cruises, or anything like that, because that’s something that a lot of people miss out on.
What is the best memory you have of the Lowcountry?
CA—Aw man, I’m pretty sentimental of the years that me and Michael were playing in the hard-scrabble little bands and bars and stuff and we got—what was that plantation down in St. Margaret Street—Lowndes Grove—you know what I mean? I’m looking at Michael, that place in St. Margaret’s …
M—Yeah, I remember, but don’t remember the name of it.
CA—It was called Lowndes Grove and it was like this house at the end of the street where Michael was living that we never got to go to because it had this big wall around it. We ended up playing an event there and I think it was one of those moments where it was a—I can’t remember the event—but it was a lot of characters from around town, a bunch of bands and friends and artists and chefs and society people, kind of mingling, and everybody was there for the party, and the sun was going down and it was oak trees and moss and the whole what you might consider a Charleston cliché was alive and breathing right in front of us and it was really beautiful. I wouldn’t necessarily say it was my favorite memory, but when I think about what I see when I think about home, I kind of envision those days, like playing in a po’-folks band at a beautiful house watching the sun go down among friends.
What is your favorite part about getting to travel to as a part of your job?
M—I think that we do get to see a lot of things that a lot of people don’t get to see. Since we work at night, we take the days and are able to check out the city a little bit. You just kind of get to be tourists on the road a little bit.
CA—You meet all kinds of crazies, often people, especially in our line of work, the rockers won’t just happen all on their own, there’s an army in every team in every city that kind of makes it happen every night, and it’s neat to meet those people.
Do you have a travel playlist? If so what’s on it?
CA—No, we don’t have a specific playlist, but we will get into specific things where whoever is playing DJ, especially when we’re driving ourselves to shows more so than on the bus—because the bus travels at night and we all sleep. When we are driving during the day, it’s fun to like whatever state you’re in, or city, go to and try to track down all of the artists that came from that area and we’ll play every band that came out of Lubbock, Texas, and every band that came out of Macon, Georgia, and it’s always a fun surprise to learn who is from where you’re at. It kills a lot of time and it’s entertaining for everybody.
If you could wake up anywhere in the world tomorrow, where would that be?
CA—I hate to say it, but if I can’t wake up on Johns Island tomorrow, I would like to wake up in Paris—it’s on my bucket list.
What is your most cherished treasure from a trip?
M—Our most cherished treasure … we have a pocketknife from a friend who passed away, and it was in Georgia somewhere …
M—We would go around to all of these little knick-knack stores with this lady, and she was always looking for case knives, so she bought us a little case knife the last time we saw her, so that’s probably our treasure from the road.
CA- Her name was Wanda Bullard, and she was from North Mississippi, and she was a storyteller down in Savannah, Georgia. We went all over Georgia with these storytellers and she gave us each a pocketknife and she passed away the next year. We both keep our pocketknives with us—it’s kind of the spirit of the road!
Cary Ann and Michael's Perfect Day in Charleston
M—Probably get up real early in the morning and go fishing. If we couldn’t get a boat, we would probably just fish off one of the bridges on Maybank Highway.
CA—It’s nice when you fish off of a dock you don’t necessarily need to get your fishing license, like you do when you’re on a boat. When we lived in town we would go to Brittlebank Park.
M—Yeah, that was probably my favorite place we used to go when we lived down there.
CA—But around here, there’s a few little bridges around some dangerous curves where around high tide you can really get good action.
CA—And then that afternoon, coffee or a cocktail at Seanachi’s, an Irish Bar on Johns Island that’s very authentic—no TVs, no foolishness. Have a little afternoon beer and then get together with friends and, now that we’re not so much in the bar scene, we just typically have a Johns Island party fire where everybody comes over and burns debris in the yard, sitting around drinking canned beer. We would probably do that until about suppertime, and then we would go into town and have an elegant dinner …
M—That’s where I’d probably stay home at that point.
CA—Michael would stay home (laughing). I would go and have an elegant dinner, but not too elegant, then try not to get arrested on King Street, I guess. I would recommend for your fancy dinner, FIG, just for downtown. I like to go to the bar at Husk even more than the restaurant, it’s just kind of a neat vibe in there and a little less fussy, but the food is really good there. You can’t swing a dead cat around Charleston without hitting an ace restaurant; it’s kind of like asking which rose is your favorite. It’s hard to have a crappy restaurant downtown—you’ll get run out of town on a rail.