Two nights before making their national television debut on The Late Show With David Letterman, Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent sounded understandably excited and a touch nervous. Mostly, though, they seemed bewildered.
The husband-and-wife team, better known as the rock hootenanny troupe Shovels and Rope, said they were flattered by the invitation. But they couldn't help but wonder how years of touring in a van promoting a delightfully combustible blend of roots country charm, punkish instinct and jagged rock immediacy was about to bring them into America's late-night living rooms.
"Well, it is exciting," Hearst said. "But it was also something we didn't even know we wanted to do. We never necessarily f athomed that all of a sudden we would get to do something like this. But we're going to do it and try not to be too nervous. Keep your fingers crossed."
The Letterman appearance, on Wednesday, was just the latest bit of good fortune that has helped spread the word on Shovels and Rope. Of course, having its 2012 album, O' Be Joyful, gather gushing reviews from such disparate sources as The Wall Street Journal, MTV Hive and NPR didn't hurt. Neither did a few co-billed concerts last fall with Jack White. But that's just the celebration side of things. The magic of Shovels and Rope is the righteous racket it creates by discovering common ground between seemingly unlikely musical camps.
Shovels and Rope comes to Cosmic Charlie's in Lexington on Wednesday.
Hearst was born in Mississippi but grew up with in Nashville with a love of serious, roots-driven country. Critics have compared her, vocally, to Dolly Parton. But a better parallel might be to the sass and grit of Lone Justice-era Maria McKee.
Colorado native Trent was a rock 'n' roller before he and Hearst began to gig in each other's bands in their adopted hometown of Charleston, S.C. They soon discovered enough common musical ground to cut a duo record under their respective names. It was titled Shovels and Rope, a reference to the tools of the trade that permeated the record's plentiful crop of murder ballads.
"I played in rock bands forever," Trent said. "Cary had mostly played in country bands. About the time of the first album, Cary became real fascinated with (veteran New York punk rockers) The Cramps while I was getting very into (iconic Americana songsmith) Townes Van Zandt. So that first Shovels and Rope record was just something to do that let us experiment in those different genres. It's just what came out.
"That's why we didn't want O' Be Joyful to be an 'Americana' record. We didn't want it to be an indie rock record or anything like that. The music just came out the way it was born."
O' Be Joyful's jamboree-flavored romps also seem the product of what became the very existence Hearst and Trent led for years. They toured the country in a van as a two-person act. There were no other musicians, no roadies, no help of any kind, really. Their only touring companion was their dog, affectionately and somewhat appropriately named Townes.
"The transportation thing is kind of funny," Hearst said. "We traveled for several years in a 15-passenger van that we converted into a sort of traveling house. Now we're even more self-contained in that we have a small RV that we travel in. We also travel now with a tour manager who does front-of-house sound and sometimes sells merch. And we bring Townes. It's like a little traveling Gypsy cart."
You mean Shovels and Rope can now afford to have some help as it trucks across the country and, as of next month, overseas? Indeed, so. The duo are also hinting that they might let up, ever so slightly, on what has been a brutish regimen of touring.
"We've had tours where we've run ourselves into the ground," Hearst said. "Some of that was just good old-fashioned dues-paying. When a gig comes along you take it because you never know if they will ever dry up. You're just happy to be working. But our goal for this year is to set a more reasonable pace. We've done so much of the grunt work. I feel like we can kind of put it in third gear and still be plenty busy."
Of course, you wouldn't know that by its impending itinerary, which has Shovels and Rope zipping through two weeks of Southern and East Coast shows before leaping over the Atlantic for a performance in London. Then it's back home for more shows in the States and a tour of Canada.
"We giggle at ourselves for going, 'Oh, we're going to be so jetlagged," Hearst said. "Coming out of our mouths, that is pretty funny. Sure, it's all work. But it's all stuff that we've always wanted to do."
IF YOU GO
Shovels and Rope
When: 10 p.m. Feb. 6
Where: Cosmic Charlie's, 388 Woodland Ave.
Tickets: $12; available by calling (859) 309-9499 or at Cosmic-charlies.com.
Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.