Shovels and Rope
One of the best ways to discover new music is to ask professional musicians what they're listening to. Unlike those of us with desk jobs, they're out there in the clubs every night, ears to the amplifiers, hearing what’s going on. While you can see who your favorite artists follow on Twitter or through other social media, a lot of acts follow several hundred if not thousands of handles, many of which have nothing to do with music (anyone looking for a good clothing store in Kansas City?). Who has time to sort through all that?
No, the best way is to ask the musicians themselves. I have a friend who's a drummer based in New York City and I asked him what he's digging at the moment. After listing a bunch of bands from the 1950s and ‘60s, he mentioned a band he saw recently in Nashville called Shovels and Rope.
Shovels and Rope is a husband and wife team from Charleston, South Carolina that has gained critical acclaim, having been bestowed with the 2013 artist of the year award by the Americana Music Association. They also received song of the year accolades from the same outfit for the track “Birmingham” off their 2012 album O’ Be Joyful (check out a great live version of “Birmingham” above). So you’ll excuse me if I’m a little late to the party, but I think it’s fair to say that Shovels & Rope is not yet a household name to most classic rock fans, notwithstanding the 2014 documentary chronicling the making of O’ Be Joyful.
O’ Be Joyful is a strong record that mixes lots of different musical elements all dear to classic rock fans. There’s folk, bluegrass, rock, garage, country, and a hint of punk. The music is acoustically-driven but the most successful tracks (“Birmingham”, “Keeper”, “O’ Be Joyful”) are hard-charging and feature Cary Ann Hearst’s twangy, raucous vocals blended with pitch-perfect harmonies shot through with yearning. If you download the record on iTunes, you get three bonus tracks, including “Boxcar” and “Gasoline,” which are also excellent.
The duo’s latest record, Swimmin’ Time, was released this past August. It's a touch grittier on balance than O’ Be Joyful, with some tracks having more of a swamp feel to them. But as with O’ Be Joyful, the harmonies on Swimmin’ Time are outrageous (check out “The Devil Is All Around,” below). And those harmonies set Shovels & Rope apart.
Shovels and Rope also put on a masterful live show. Their recent concert at the Fillmore in San Francisco was a sonic marvel. I wouldn't have thought it possible for just two people to fill that room with so many layers of sound. One played guitar while the other simultaneously played drums (with the left hand) and keyboards (with the right hand), with multiple mid-song exchanges between drum stick and maraca. Just to keep things interesting, they swapped instruments every few songs.
Do yourself a favor and check these guys out when they hit your town. Here’s a link to their latest tour dates. [Note to my brother-in-law in San Antonio: they're playing Sam’s Burger Joint in January, which is where we saw Heartless Bastards. Get the guest room ready for me!]