Shovels & Rope, Little Seeds
For a large chunk of my life, I would proudly declare to anybody who’d listen that I hated country music. I got downright righteous about it, honestly, for reasons that would probably only make sense to teenage wannabe music nerds with inflated senses of their own importance. And yeah, I’d imagine it was pretty freaking annoying. (Sorry about that, everybody to whom I subjected my idiotic teenage opinions on things…)
A few decades on from there, and I’ve come to a realization: the kind of country music I hated (and still hate) is that overprocessed, brainless, grab-a-beer-let’s-party breed of country, and that particular kind of country just happened to be having a serious boom back when I first started paying attention. So I heard it, had it beaten into my skull by radio and TV and friends and whatever else, hated it, and assumed that was all country music as a genre had to offer. Ergo, blanket statements like, “Country music all sucks.”
More than anything, I’d probably credit Steve Earle’s classic Jerusalem with showing me just how wrong I was; here came a guy who made music that was undeniably country (although yeah, it’d probably get labeled as “roots” these days) but that had nothing in common with its radio-friendly kinfolk. It was thoughtful, aware, rooted in the real world, not some fake-ass fantasy realm where everybody drives pickup trucks and wears cowboy boots and all hang out at remarkably clean bars where they’d do the boot-scooting boogie with the ladies. He sang songs about serious shit, from addiction to hatred to war. And he did it with fire and real-live feeling, not a plastered-on false grin.
Which brings me to Shovels & Rope. Like Earle, a lot of folks might twitch at calling the music they make “country,” preferring the roots-rock or Americana tag, but I’d humbly submit that that’s because we’re so used to craptacular “country music” that we no longer recognize the real goddamn thing when we see it. Husband-and-wife team Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst play real country music, the kind that’s raw and wild and desperate, not busy shining up its belt buckle for the girls at the bar. They play country music that drags in the blues, drags in rock and roll, drags in folk music, and makes it all into one big, rowdy, murky, dangerous mess of sound.
Hell, it’s even in the band’s name — I think you’d be hard-pressed to find somebody who doesn’t hear the words “shovels and rope” and immediately conjure up nefarious deeds done way back deep in the woods where nobody’s likely to hear. And the duo follows through on the name wonderfully, plumbing the darkened corners of life, the real life that we all go through, together but still alone.
They kick off Little Seeds with a burner, the overfuzzed, feedback-laden “I Know,” where they simultaneously sneer and sympathize with the subject of the song over a get-down boogie that’s slathered with dirt-road grit and spilled whiskey. Then there’s “Botched Execution,” a stomping, frantic tune about a convicted killer who avoids the big sleep only to weary of being on the run; despite the protagonist’s admission that, okay, so there is a body hidden in a closet, it’s a surprisingly empathetic treatment.
Trent and Hearst’s vocal delivery is so damn fast and frenetic that it comes off at times like hillbilly rapping, and hey, I’m good with that as long as it’s not coming from the likes of, say, Big Smo (sorry, but there are some lines I just can’t cross).
They turn down for “St. Anne’s Parade,” the nice ukulele intro of which makes me think of Eddie Vedder’s “Rise,” from the Into the Wild soundtrack. It’s somber and thoughtful, drifting northwards from New Orleans on a late-night/early-morning cross-country drive. It’s tender and affecting, almost like The Pogues’ quieter moments, and that’s no mean feat. I can’t help but hang onto the song’s refrain: “This life may be too good to survive.”
Along similar lines, the anthemic, beautiful “The Last Hawk” is a yearning track for the bygone days of the ’60s, the promise of glory unrealized, and all the friends lost along the way. It’s amazing, truly, how Shovels & Rope can craft songs that sound like they hail from another era while avoiding any of those too-easy pitfalls of intentionally “retro” songwriting.
They rev back up for “Buffalo Nickel,” a rollicking, foot-pounding roar that’s seriously reminiscent of The White Stripes at their White Blood Cells-era best. “Invisible Man” hits nearby, a rocking rendition of the internal voice of a drunken man stumbling back to his car after a long, long night of hard living.
For its part, “Mourning Song” is more traditionally folk-y; it’s gorgeous and elegaic, but not downhearted despite its title. Instead, there’s a joy that comes pouring through those vocal harmonies and gently-strummed guitar lines. It’s a highlight on here for, as is “Missionary Ridge,” a solemn ode to the Union soldiers killed at the Battle of Missionary Ridge, when they ignored orders to wait and charged up the ridge, in the process defeating the entrenched Confederate troops.
“BWYR,” close to the end of Little Seeds, veers off the track and into more sociopolitical territory, a dark, deliberate-stepping look at race, racism, and politics in modern-day America. It’s haunting and surprisingly serious, not offering any solutions but pointing a finger at those who would divide us all by the color of our skin while they’re grabbing everything they can.
The album closes on a pair of deeply personal songs, “Eric’s Birthday” and “This Ride” — the former is just handclaps, quiet guitar, and a recording of somebody (Trent’s mother, possibly?) telling the story of their son being born in the back of a police car. It’s warm and poignant and tender, as is “This Ride,” which sees Trent and Hearst full of wonderment and awe at the sometimes glorious, sometimes shattering unfolding of life we all go through. The song is gorgeous and heartfelt and pitch-perfect, the perfect end to a damn fine album.
Call it country, call it Americana, call it roots music, whatever — I don’t care, in the end. All that really matters is that Shovels & Rope make music that’s honest and raw and ultimately real, a desperately-needed antidote to all the too-clean, too-shiny, too-idealized music that’s poured into our ears every goddamn day. I know I sure as hell need it; I’d bet you do, too.