It wasn't like Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst sprang for one of those 45-foot Prevost penthouse-suites-on-wheels or anything.
After signing on the dotted line in May, the married down-home garage-pop duo drove off a Cincinnati car lot in a comparatively cozy Winnebago View — not a full-size RV so much as a camper plopped onto a van chassis. However diminutive their set of diesel-powered wheels might look parked next to a million-dollar tour coach, the purchase was no small deal to them.
"Basically like us buying our first house," says Trent, who even carried Hearst up the vehicle's two retractable steps and over the threshold. "It was this thing that we get to use and work out of, but it's the biggest loan that either one of us has ever dealt with — especially as a married couple. It was a long hard process to make that happen. There were tears of joy when we finally did make it happen. We didn't think it would."
Joy was merely one among a jumble of emotions Hearst and Trent felt at the time. During a decade-plus of playing music, separately and together, they'd come to see themselves as the sort of performers who took the hardscrabble DIY touring lifestyle in stride. That no-frills image was promoted by a widely circulated press kit photo of the couple in the back of their old van, lying on a mattress with their cobbled-together drum kit crammed beneath it.
"We had a lot of guilt when we bought the RV," Trent admits. "We were kinda like ..."
"Sheepish about it," Hearst chimes in, with a throaty laugh. " 'What will they say about us?' "
If Shovels & Rope feared being dismissed as sellouts by jealous peers, exacting fans, ax-grinding reviewers or whomever, they needn't have worried. Instead, they got a great big "Attaband!" when the 2013 Americana Music Award nominations were announced. The husband-and-wife duo was up for more of those hand-crafted trophies than anyone else — including perennial favorites Emmylou Harris and Buddy Miller. (The awards gala at the Ryman Auditorium was scheduled to kick off the festival Wednesday night.)
As the five-day festival gathers steam into the weekend, spanning a broad base of clubs and artists, familiar figures are as big a draw as ever. Miller, for instance, is playing two separate prime-time showcases this week at the festival's largest venue, the Cannery Ballroom, and both are bound to be packed out. Established artists as diverse as Rosanne Cash, Richard Thompson, Delbert McClinton, Shelby Lynne, Billy Bragg, Lucinda Williams, bluesman Bobby Rush and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band will play stages across the city. (An overview of acts and showcases can be found on p. 22.)
But that doesn't mean all is business as usual in the genre. The dissonance Trent and Hearst experienced when they upgraded their transportation, the art-ahead-of-luxury philosophy that brought those feelings on, and the fact that they've ultimately made peace with their improved situation offer a small-scale analogy for a big-time paradigm shift happening in the Americana world. If the underdog proves it can break through to broader audiences — as Americana artists like Shovels & Rope are doing — can it still position itself as the underdog?
The narrative long deployed by those working in the roots-music business, journalists who cover the beat, and the Americana Music Association itself contains two central tropes that are in constructive tension with each other. One is an emphasis on artistic integrity — the scuffling authenticity of the music's creators and promoters, who've worked hard to spin their smaller commercial clout as a badge of honor.
According to NPR pop critic Ann Powers, those values — including an attendant discomfort with the very idea of mainstream hits — were inherited from the '90s alt-country crowd. "That was more because they were aligned with indie rock than anything to do with Americana, I think," Powers says from her home base in Alabama. "Indie rock of the '80s, pre-Nirvana basically, was very much about creating a separate world that wasn't about commercial success, a musical life outside of the mainstream."
The accompanying trope, though, is that for Americana artists, a commercial payoff lies just around the bend. There are those who've prophesied an Americana boom ever since the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack sold a gazillion units, more than a decade ago. It's been de rigueur to cite the creation of a standalone Americana Grammy category, and the fact that rock god Robert Plant threw in his lot with the genre, as proof of the music's viability in the marketplace.
You wouldn't know it from a rather behind-the-curve essay The Atlantic published just a month-and-a-half ago, apparently prompted by Bob Dylan's Americanarama tour, but the attitudes they are a-changin'. There are now highly visible segments of the scene in which sellability vs. substance isn't a terribly relevant conflict.
It's one thing to extend or revitalize the careers of performers who've made their names elsewhere, the way Robert Plant has, or artists who've earned devoted audiences and curried favor with rock critics over a period of decades, as Lucinda Williams has. It's another thing entirely to shepherd brand-new Americana acts to profit-turning, wide-reaching popularity — in other words, to break a band.
That's actually happening, as spelled out by 2012's slate of nominees in the Best Americana Album Grammy category. One was a longtime fave (Bonnie Raitt), another a wildcard newbie (John Fullbright) and the remaining three recently minted arena-fillers (The Lumineers, The Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons). This wave of youthful folk-rockers, along with The Civil Wars and the Alabama Shakes, has proven that gold and platinum albums and singles aren't entirely outside the bounds of possibility. Even though Americana hasn't been a singles-driven market, there was a bona fide hit single among the 2013 entrees for Americana Song of the Year: The Lumineers' acoustic-pop shout-along "Ho Hey."
So far, Shovels & Rope's sales are a fraction of those of their Dualtone Records labelmates The Lumineers. Still, Hearst and Trent's excellent 2012 album O' Be Joyful has sold circles around their eponymous self-released debut.
"A lot of our pitch to the band, a lot of our philosophy is like, if we can't add value to what an artist is doing, then we won't have a business," says Paul Roper, president of Nashville-based Dualtone. "So for us to come out of the gate, and [in one week] triple the amount of sales that they had done of their own record, really helped back up what we had told them all along."
There was a time when Trent and Hearst's most promising means of gassing up the van to get to the next hole-in-the-wall bar gig was pushing a "three CDs for 25 bucks" deal at their shows. (For your hard-earned cash, you'd get Trent's solo album The Winner, Hearst's solo album Lions and Lambs and their first collaborative project as Shovels & Rope.)
"You're sweaty, you just laid it all out there, and then you have to jump down and open up the merch box," Trent says. "We would have to divide and conquer, even though there's only two of us. We couldn't just leave all our shit on stage, so I would always pack up the stuff, pack up the van. Cary would be at the merch box, hawking the wares."
"You did get to know your fans," says Hearst, whose first fans, back in her Nashville high school days, were fellow teenage punks congregating in the basement of long-shuttered Guido's Pizzeria. "And now it's a little bit more difficult to get out there to them, I think. I hope their feelings aren't hurt by that. It's just a little bit different now that we are responsible for everything. ... You sure do appreciate it when you've got a merch guy."
That's how Shovels & Rope rolls these days: in their mini-RV, with a newly acquired tour manager and merch guy and their dog Townes. They kicked off the year with a performance on The Late Show With David Letterman, released a single in Third Man's Blue Series in March, and this summer opened a sold-out Ryman show for Dawes. They're currently headlining their own tour of 1,500-capacity clubs.
In Trent's words, all this has come after years "in the trenches with all of our friends." The DIY label they dreamed up with four other broke musicians was dubbed Shrimp Records, as a nod to both their seafood-stocked home base of Charleston, S.C., and the size of the operation.
"Between us, we had enough gear," says Hearst. "Somebody would have to come over and use Michael's Pro Tools rig, or Mike would borrow Bill [Carson's] microphone, because ours wasn't good enough to use for recording."
Trent used his no-budget setup to track chunks of O' Be Joyful wherever he could: at home, in a motel room, in the van. But he and Hearst were no more going for a hermetically sealed, impenetrable-to-the-masses lo-fi vibe than they were a super-slick, digitally nipped-and-tucked sound.
The roughneck lineage of roots and rock comes through in the boom-thwack primitivism of their percussion and the choppy, jabbing swing of the rhythm guitar parts. But they clearly cultivate catchiness in their songwriting, arrangements and the salty-sweet bite of their side-by-side vocal attack.
It's not for nothing that the club proprietor's intro that Trent recorded on his phone and tacked onto the track "Kemba's Got the Cabbage Moth Blues" repeatedly calls them "entertainers." On stage, they're all about generous exertion in the name of gregarious performance, as you'd expect the hardest-working Americana band in show business to be.
The self-mythologizing lyrics of "Birmingham" lay out what Hearst and Trent want to be known for: "Making something out of nothing like a scratch and a hope / Two old guitars like a shovel and a rope."
They have a knack for contextualizing their career growth and incorporating it into their persona, with spunk and savvy. Rather than always fielding questions about the inner workings of their music, they claim to actually prefer those about the nuts and bolts of how they makes things work.
"We are open about it," says Hearst, "and it is a source of pride, but it's pride about seeing what you can do with humble resources: 'Let's see what you can do, how far you can get in this world with good manners and good songs. Your wildest dreams are possible, and here's a road map.' It all comes from a willingness to tour and do the legwork."
Shovels & Rope even slapped "Creatio Ex Nihilo" — a Latin approximate of their motto, "something out of nothing" — onto a band T-shirt, though they haven't moved too many at the merch table.
"I thought we would," says Hearst, "but I think the people don't know what the hell it means, because it takes a long time to explain it. It's also not like I speak Latin, you know? ... But we say it to each other a lot. It has literally become part of the culture of our band business."
With a similar see-it-through work ethic, Dualtone's grown in a way that sheds light on expansion in Americana as a whole. Its roster initially leaned toward first-rate singer-songwriter vets, among them Radney Foster, Jim Lauderdale and Guy Clark. Somewhere along the way, Dualtone also started taking on — and breaking — unproven quantities like Brett Dennen, The Lumineers, Shovels & Rope and Ivan & Aloysha.
"Early on," says Roper, "it was a necessity of how is the label going to make back its investment relatively quickly. And the easiest way to do that was to find some acts that already had an established fan base, so we weren't starting from ground zero as the label was starting from ground zero. As time's gone on, I think you've seen the Americana genre swing, over the past three to five years, to become more youthful and more youth-driven.
"We're getting pitched a lot of bands that sound a lot like The Lumineers, or duos that sound like The Civil Wars, or in the vein of what Shovels & Rope do. It's like everybody with a kick drum and a mandolin wants us to put out their record. But I think for us, while we've seen what's possible with this type of music, we also want to continue to bring different styles of music to the forefront of what's going on."
Dualtone's idea of a varied roster, Roper takes care to point out, includes venerated heritage acts; the label wants to keep releasing Guy Clark masterpieces for as long as Clark wants to keep making them.
That the new crop of music makers has arrived with different ideas about how to connect with an audience is not lost on NPR critic Powers. "They write catchy singles, they're completely happy to play big festivals, to have their singles licensed to commercials," she says. "I don't think there's any pangs of conscience around that. But the thing is that that's generational too. It's not just about the style of music. Across the board, whether you look at EDM dance music, younger hip-hop artists, the issues surrounding being commercial and selling out that haunted '90s artists and '80s artists, and even maybe some into the 2000s, they're just not issues for those kids. ... I think they want to reach as many people as they can, and they're OK with that."
Some artists of the '80s and '90s are getting OK with broader means of exposure, too. In late 2010, Lucinda Williams gave an enlightening interview just as she was coming to terms with the notion of lending her self-expression to someone else's plotline, for pay.
"To me," Williams said, "who you write the song for is really neither here nor there anyway. By the time the song gets out and I'm done with it, it kind of goes off into the universe. It's kind of whoever wants to do whatever with it is fine with me. Well, I wouldn't want to have it in certain commercials. That's where the money is, though."
Indeed. A Bing ad featuring "Ho Hey" accelerated The Lumineers' early momentum. The Avetts, The Alabama Shakes and Langhorne Slim have all done advertising deals with their own music. And when it comes to television and film licensing, it's easier to count the acts abstaining.
"We've seen across the board a huge willingness from artists to license their music," Roper says. "We've experienced some pushback on a few things, but that was more because the campaign didn't fit the message the artist wanted to be associated with or there was some kind of conflict with the artist's vision for that song. But I think as far as roots music goes, there's been more opportunities to license music because of the diversity in the landscape of shows, too. A few years ago, the only show you could probably get an Americana-type act licensed on would be HBO's Deadwood."
Hearst has observed a related Americana-friendly shift. "In the '70s and '80s, when people were putting songs in TV and movies, they were going for crap pop songs that were already big," she says. "Now, I love me some Huey Lewis and the News. Don't get me wrong. But those big movies, they weren't using music by songwriters — they were dipping into the pop machine. ... I think that the vibe that you're getting from the media people that use songs [now] ... it's like [they're] curating a playlist of music that they like."
With the unifying power of the pop machine as we know it disintegrating by the day, it's a whole new world out there — one in which an Americana stalwart like Buddy Miller gets promoted to resident curator (aka executive music producer) for season two of Nashville, a network TV drama with a keen interest in singer-songwriters. Trent and Hearst have placed one of their songs there already.
What you get with Shovels & Rope is a couple of 30-somethings — once punk kids, now emerging Americana artists with pop appeal — who've embraced the available avenues of getting their music out there as an extension of their hard work on the ground. There's no soul-selling involved whatsoever.
"We haven't really run into anything that we would have to put our foot down and say, 'No, ' says Trent, who's had a solo song in Hart of Dixie. "But I'm a little bit bummed that the Johnny Cash song was in the hemorrhoids commercial, you know? You have to draw a line in the sand."
Adds Hearst, who's also had a solo number in True Blood, "We're not gonna license our music to do anything that hurts kids or sells cigarettes or knives or guns or anything. Notice I didn't say 'alcohol.' "
Trent translates, "Nothing below the belt."
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