By Jeb Gavin
I am wary of Americana folk acts these days. I say wary because there seems to be a move to, well, not exploit, but certainly use the history of American music as a shortcut for development of an original sound and unique artistic viewpoint. The way Shovels & Rope move so effortlessly between folk, country & western, and primitive rock and roll worries me because suddenly the borrowing becomes the act, rather than divining something so personal it can’t help but connect strangers through sound. Their show at the 9:30 Club Wednesday night was a party, no doubt about it- but it did little to assuage my concerns.
Before I really get cooking, I should cut myself off here and add: there are those who feel no homage, no cover, no sample can be justified for fear of capitalizing on the artistic endeavor of another. I am not arguing that point; a unique sound is a unique sound, even if you have to chop up a thousand tapes into one second of inspiration to achieve it. The more I listen to the South Carolina duo’s first two albums, the more I’m drawn to their lyricism. Near anachronisms used like milestones in well told stories lead us down trails just off a well beaten path. The first song I ever heard of theirs was “Boxcar,” which you could hear as overt reference to 3:10 to Yuma as well as a capper to the more recent “Tom Ames’ Prayer.” A reference to Bonnie and Clyde seems out of place in what might well be a Reconstruction-era train robbery gone wrong, but listening again there’s nothing to indicate a time period. It’s about a couple, locked into a bad situation together, and it’s expressed beautifully- exactly what you want to hear from country music.
But history leaps back into my view, and suddenly I can’t help but think of all the other great country duos telling the same story: Porter and Dolly; Conway and Loretta; Johnny and June. It’s a trope, however impressive live- and it is impressive live. Cary Ann Hearst and husband Michael Trent trade off duties on acoustic and electric guitar, drums, even harmonica, splitting songs between them and swapping gear as often as they please. The stage was sparse, no backdrop, no accompaniment. The amount of sound two people can make with acoustic instruments set dead center of the 9:30 Club stage is fascinating, this great Lomax-ian echo rolling out into the world, but to what end?
The obvious answer I arrive at is the connection we make with our own past, an attempt to connect to what we think of as the roots of American music- moving forward by examining the past and turning it inside out. But is that in and of itself the be-all, end-all of the undertaking? Compared to say, Jack White, who not only tried to rescue blues rock guitar, but expand upon it by digging through all the squalid, squelching little channels of pablum caked in the trenches of rock and roll, I’m not sure simply saying, “hey, remember Reckless Eric?” cuts it.
A lot of this is tied to how and why we remember. The permanence of music and the instant recall of which we’re technologically capable makes a live show that much more important; experience cannot be recreated perfectly and that’s good. We remember not to recreate, but to chart our progress, either personally or emotionally or artistically. By making a live event simply a collection of references, you short circuit the creation of new memories, and we get stuck with references of references. I like the music Shovels & Rope make. Their nearly two hour live set is fun and absorbing. But is it affecting? Is it enough to point to all the memories we’ve got, rather than letting go and making new ones?