Shovels & Rope Documentary Captures the Life of an Americana Couple

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Unless there’s a reality show involved, most baby bands simply don’t have film crews trailing along behind them, capturing their every move. Husband-and-wife duo Shovels & Rope are the exception, and a documentary in progress about them, The Ballad of Shovels & Rope, is bound to break all the familiar molds.

It won’t be a saga of personality conflicts or, for that matter, a fame-and-fortune-fueled rollercoaster ride. And filmmakers the Moving Picture Boys, who’ve been shooting the musical pair of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent since early 2011, won’t have to put a positive spin on their backstory or skirt any ugly career episodes in order to make them into likeable, interesting subjects.

“I figure the longer they [film us], the more interesting the story gets,” says Hearst, with a salty laugh. “It’s crazy, because they started filming us as we were writing these songs for [the 2012 album] O, Be Joyful. They’ve got the whole thing, for better or worse. They’ve got not only the recording and the writing process, but the formulation of the band and our early perils, from sleeping in a Walmart parking lot in West Virginia to riding around in our RV and parking and sleeping in New York … urban camping in Brooklyn.”

Hearst and Trent had each grown accustomed to less-than-plush accommodations and all manner of other resourceful strategies for scraping by on the road while they worked at making names for themselves as solo singer-songwriters. They’re the rare musical couple grounded enough to thrive professionally and personally by prioritizing their collaborative career, including its requirement that they be almost constantly in each other’s company — and often in close quarters.

“It’s been a total blessing,” says Hearst. “Putting aside all of our own stuff to really work together as a team, I think, has fortified our marriage at the core of it. We have a system. We know how to communicate with each other. We know how to talk to each other, talk each other down out of sometimes going into an emotional tailspin. We really have a functional marriage in that way.”

She continues, “I don’t know if it’s because it’s still new or if it’s because this life that we’ve chosen to live has really taught us something about teamwork. I think [we’re] a better couple for it, and I don’t know that we would be as happy if we hadn’t gone and let all that stuff — that ego stuff — go.”

The Shovels & Rope philosophy of “making something out of nothing” echoes the do-it-yourself punk ethic and even hearkens back to the early era of commercial music when self-taught, vernacular folk musicians began dreaming of taking their talents as far from home as they could. The motto shows up in the pair’s self-mythologizing roots-pop romp “Birmingham” — the 2013 Americana Music Association’s song of the year — and, in its Latin translation, on band T-shirts.

Even when they were an unproven and unknown duo, Hearst and Trent’s independent spirit seemed documentary-worthy. On a website promoting the Kickstarter campaign to fund the film’s completion, the Moving Picture Boys explained, “Their story was our story. We were doing whatever it took to do what we love on our own terms using the resources we had, and then it clicked.”

Their cameras were trained on Shovels & Rope as they upgraded their touring vehicle from a van to a modest-sized Winnebago and headed to their debut performance on the Late Show With David Letterman. So eager were fans to see footage of the duo making something out of sweat equity, in a little over a month, the filmmakers were able to raise more than twice the amount of money they asked for on Kickstarter — 217 percent, to be exact.

So much has changed for Hearst and Trent in the past few years, it might just do them good to see their own story play out on screen.

Says Hearst, “I kind of had a talk with myself: ‘We’re fixing to go on this headlining tour. I think it’s time you really focus on what it is that you’re doing, instead of worrying about what’s gonna be the backup plan.’ I felt like I was always wondering, ‘What am I gonna do next? … If it doesn’t work out, or if we change our minds, what are we gonna do instead?’

“And right now — I think Michael’s probably in the same headspace — I feel like really focusing all my energy on exactly what we are doing. We’re in this shit! We did it! I guess if we do a good job, we get to stick around.”

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