On March 26, 2009, the parents of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent met for the first time on Wadmalaw Island, in Charleston County, South Carolina. It was an awkward and happy time, as Hearst and Trent were preparing to get married two days later – but fortunately, both singers' fathers were musicians who liked to relax by picking stringed instruments.
"The icebreaker was mandolin. They played a little bluegrass and sat around," recalls Hearst, who with Trent makes up the country-folk-rock duo Shovels & Rope. "It was really nice seeing our parents try to figure each other out and get to know each other."
Trent's father and Hearst's stepdad played again last month at a birthday party for the couple's 1-year-old daughter. This collaboration, at a beach house in Charleston, had a different kind of poignancy: Trent's dad has Alzheimer's disease. "One of the things that is keeping (him) with us – he's a fantastic musician and he loves music. It gives him a great mood and you can really connect with him that way," says Hearst, 37, in a joint 20-minute phone interview from Nashville, Tennessee, where they duo is promoting its new album "Little Seeds." "That's a cool thing we get to share between our families."
"Little Seeds" continues Shovels & Rope's path into darker material. Despite its history as a band formed in love and harmony, the duo is superb at drawing rock 'n' roll power from droney folk music: "I'm ashamed in the shadow of a steeple," they sing in 2014's "Evil." The new album has one powerful rocker about Alzheimer's, "Invisible Man," directly inspired by Trent's father: "Help me please/ I lost myself/ I know who I am/ I don't know anybody else." It's also inspired by the death of their musician-friend Eric Brantley, killed in a 2015 shooting, as well as the mass church shooting in Charleston that same year.
"It's a frustrating disease and it's annoying for him to get around and do the things he wants to do – he is just frustrated all the time because he can't remember," says Trent, 38. "It was difficult for the family. They lived with us for a couple years, and watching my mom do all the things that she has to do to get through the day ... we wrote ('Invisible Man') as him rattling the cage and being like, 'How come I can't remember this?' "
That's not to say "Little Seeds" is bleak – it opens with a blast of guitar feedback and a stomping rocker called "I Know." Plus, "Invisible Man" is more cathartic than depressing and even the softer, folky songs, like "Missionary Ridge," have a bit of X and Johnny-and-June in them.
Trent and Hearst grew up, in their separate cities, as what they once called "snotty punk-rock kids," enamored of the Stooges and Dinosaur Jr. Trent attended a Denver private school, where he was unhappy, and Hearst grew up in Nashville, shifting her interests to traditional country music after enrolling at the College of Charleston. They formed separate bands, the Films (Trent) and Borrowed Angels (Hearst). When they met, they quickly sussed out their vocal chemistry and collaborated musically before dating.
"It clicked right away. That was the first thing we realized about it," Trent says. "We made a bunch of recordings for fun before we ever decided to be in this band. Neither one of us are great instrumentalists. Neither of us knew how to play drums at all – we did it out of necessity just to create a backbeat so people would shut up in the bar. But we've always been able to harmonize with each other. It's just an instinctual thing."
They officially formed Shovels & Rope in 2008, and took four years to make a debut called "O' Be Joyful." Slowly, they began to build a following, landing a song called "Hell's Bells" in an episode of "True Blood." Upon having a daughter, Louisiana Jean, they came up with a foolproof plan to balance their music careers and child care. "We record everything at home. We were like, 'Oh, yeah, we'll just take some time off and have this baby around and we'll be at home anyway,' " Trent says. "So we'll record then."
"That'll be a good time!" Hearst interjects.
Continues Trent, "It turns out they don't really jibe with each other, like brand-new, wailing infant and silent-room-that-you-need-to-record. It was really difficult at first. ... We had to become expert time managers. But we have some really great friends and people stepped up and allowed us to grab some hours here and there.
"Little Seeds" reflects the joy and stress of new parents juxtaposed with the couple's personal tragedies. "We're enjoying the extremes in our life – the birth of a child, the aging of our parents, the new filter that you look through life with," Hearst says. "It was an overwhelming time. And what was astounding about it was even though it was a crazy time, those times happen to everybody. It was a universal human experience." In other words, the perfect inspiration for an album full of folk, country and rock 'n' roll songs.