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ESSAY: Southern Music in Seattle

O’ Be Joyful:

Southern Air Comes West

shovels and rope southern music

The cover of the new Shovels & Rope record, O’ Be Joyful, couldn’t be more right. On a clear, August evening, I peered at the record on the merchandise table before the South Carolina duo’s performance at KEXP’s outdoor concert series in Seattle, Washington. On the cover, Michael Trent in Carhartt overalls gazes lovingly at the ginger curls of Cary Ann Hearst from the back window of a truck. A farm dog peers back at the viewer. The sky is gray in a manageable, Carolina way—not an endless, Seattle way.

My honey, Janie, and I were killing time before the show—some friends who we knew back in our North Carolina days were supposed to join us, and I was nervous. This evening’s event was called No Depression Night, which—though fitting for the band—seemed like it would be the opposite for us. I felt like I was stepping into homesickness. I sipped some whiskey from a jam jar and didn’t say much. What else do you do when you know your heart is going to get all raw and exposed?

Seattle, Washington, is 3,025 miles from Wilmington, North Carolina (where I first saw Shovels & Rope play), and 2,949 miles from Charleston, South Carolina (where the band is based), but there are times when it couldn’t feel further. In the year since moving to Seattle, we hadn’t hung out on a porch once or been dropped in on. I could count on my hands the number of times we had any response to last-minute dinner invitations or found myself involved in conversations with strangers I only half wanted to be in. Even the dogs seemed unavailable. Walking by on a cool evening it seemed like both the animal and the person scowled. “They call this the Seattle freeze,” my Georgia-born co-worker told me one day when I expressed some loneliness. A terrible and fitting name that is more the fault of the weather than the people. Cloudy days breed introversion and overwork, and my heart, with its balmy-day hopefulness, tightened.

It was August 3, and summer had been happening for three days. This meant an electric blue sky and two mountain ranges, the Cascades and the Olympics, glowed at either end of the city like two moons. There had been no glacial wind for seventy-two hours, but I’m wise to the weather systems here—am I cold or am I hot?—so I carried a wool sweater just in case. I was desperate for heat on my skin or at least sweat from moving around. I was ready for Shovels & Rope.

They came out looking like nothing special: Hearst with a bandana tied up around her head like she’d just finished keeping house and Trent in a pair of work pants and a greasy cap pulled low. Hearst took the guitar first. “We’re going to have a little bit of fun. We’re going to talk to you a bit about country life.”

If a sweet drawl could ever be a portal, it opened that night. We rushed to the front of the stage with our North Carolina friends. Within the first song it became clear that there was something similar about the crowd around us. We were in a cloud of displaced Southerners who were reaching their hands up in the act of praise, but the spirit they were feeling was of home. There was foot stomping, whooping, and hollering. I was hearing “Sing it girl!” There were hips swaying loose because it’s in the DNA to dance that way to Shovels & Rope. That spirit we caught wasn’t just from their lyrics or their kick and snare drum but the way they sang at each other like they were on their back porch or in their bed. She put a hand on his hip, and he leaned down like he was going to kiss her mouth but sang into the mic instead. They were alive. They were going to look you in the eye. There was no freeze where they were.

Their album, O’ Be Joyful, is just as rowdy. You can hear the tambourine they smack on top of the kick drum, and their voices seep out sweet and smooth. They seem set on making sure it captures the way folks speak. In “Kemba Got the Cabbage Moth Blues,” they sing, “I hope my mamma didn’t float away / Heard the Cumberland overflowed the banks.” Their character-driven lyrics are full of tall tales describing the kind of women you talk about behind their backs and the sweet, good men who’ll turn you down but tip their hat while doing so. It’s eleven songs of a big, bushy heart.

They played their single “Birmingham,” about musicians fleeing their hometown for New York, but while they are gone they make peace with their departure. As expected, things had gotten downright emotional in front of the stage. Two Tennessee girls to my left were giving each other knowing looks, the kind that indicated “no one gets this like we get this.” Janie was pumping one fist in the air and wiping the tears away with the palm of the other. She really is country, I thought, because somehow, in the setting of a hip neighborhood, I’d forgotten. My hips felt tight with emotion, and I wanted to show the people around me what I could do with them. My heart sweetly unraveled.

It seemed like it could be the South, though the sky that arched behind them could never be so blue and the seagull that Hearst smiled at would never have flown so low. Janie got caught up in a conversation with a woman that had the kind of high-pitched Southern voice that makes the slightest excitement seem like the beginning of an unhinging.

“I’ve missed this. The way they talk. I wish I could have them play around my fire pit.”
“A fire pit,” Janie cried.
“Listen,” the woman said, smacking her hands together the way you would to keep them warm. “I’m from Athens, Georgia.”
“This makes my heart feel so good,” Janie said, but the woman from Athens had something else she was trying to find words to say.
“No, see, I’m from Athens, Georgia!”

Shovels & Rope sang, “Rock of Ages, cleave for me / Let my heart forget of thee / Why do you demand, calling me from Birmingham?” What was special about this band was to feel not only written of but also somehow created by them. Like we all existed because of them. It’s not often you get the sense of meeting your creators.

The music ended, and we exchanged some pleasantries. I felt too shy to ask the girl from Athens for her number. The sun had dipped, and I pulled my sweater tight around me. At the bus stop, I accidentally smiled at a stranger, but this time, when they snapped their head away I didn’t mind as much. My heart was full.

But girl from Athens, if you’re reading this, give us a holler. We’ll drop by on some drizzly afternoon with an extra sweater, some egg salad, and a guitar.

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