Everything was so fresh and oversaturated, this bright new life, no wonder she wanted a soundtrack. She gave us the trucker sign insistently even in the brief pauses of silence between songs on an album. At six in the morning, she would wake up and immediately begin signaling, with increasing urgency. So there was more music in our mornings, more music in our home.
2. If Charleston, South Carolina, has a house band, let’s say that it’s the husband-and-wife duo Shovels & Rope. Michael Trent is from Denver and Cary Ann Hearst is from Nashville by way of Mississippi, but that’s how it ought to be: A house band of outsiders, tramps like us.
They have been on the road a hundred fifty to two hundred days a year since they began playing together as a band around a decade ago. It’s travelers’ music that they play, folk and country and rock, just the two of them, swapping instruments and singing nearly every word together in something closer to a tangle than a harmony.
It was a side project at first, and that’s how they referred to it for years. Even now they check in every so often: Are we doing this? Is this good for you? They weren’t musical partners when they got married—they were both invested in their own musical projects and never planned to be in a band together. But then they dabbled here and there, and people liked it, so they outfitted their van with a bedroom—queen air mattress and curtains Velcroed on the windows—and went on the road, and a record label came calling, and at a certain point it seemed easier to reckon a life together if they played together, too. Sometimes when people talk about destiny, what they really mean is logistics.
“We had nothing to lose,” Cary Ann said. “Fuck it. Band. Family. Let’s give it a shot. . . . Handshake, spit on it. If it gets too nasty we’ll cut and run.”
3. “Mary Ann & One Eyed Dan” is a ramshackle fable, the love story of a waitress at the circus and a Delaware Locale Observer reporter fresh out of the army, “missing half an eyelid so he had to wear a patch.” A country romp with a carnival spirit, the song imagines love as a kind of surrender of the self: “So long to my former life / to a worried life, so long . . . So long to a wandering life / To a wounded life, so long.”
It is one of those pieces of pop music that fully pops for children, not because it’s childish but because it somehow transmits at all frequencies (see also Paul Simon’s Graceland, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” Woody Guthrie, the early catalog of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony). Later, we would teach our daughter the efficiencies of grown-up life, like how to speedily put on her own socks. But first there was her delight in a song, that unhurried fixation, that untaught wonder.
Back then she couldn’t sing along, but that’s okay, her mama and daddy could. “So long to our former selves,” we sang, and we sang it loud, like a siren to remind each other that we were there, still singing together. As loud a wail as Michael and Cary Ann on the record, again and again: “To our selfish selves, so long.”
4. Once upon a time there was a country singer in Charleston named Cary Ann Hearst, working service jobs to pay the rent. She was in a band called the Borrowed Angels, a name which kind of captures the sound of her voice, a haggard thing in celestial terrain. Then one day Michael Trent came to town, using Charleston as a home base while on tour in the Southeast with his garage-rock band, the Films, a name which kind of captures the punch and sweep of the songs he writes.
“New boys with rock & roll clothes showed up in the bar,” Cary Ann said. “In this town there’s not very many cute boys and there’s a lot of thirsty women.”
Reader, she married him. It poured down rain on their wedding day and that was just fine—mud splattered on her dress, they kept dancing, and their friends had to make four separate beer runs to the Piggly Wiggly.
5. Describing their live performance on stage together, Cary Ann told Rolling Stone a few years back, “People think we’re gazing romantically in each other’s eyes, but I’m really just waiting for the change.”
I told Grace this line and she said, “But—isn’t that really the same thing?”
6. They had a baby and they made it work. Their daughter, Louisiana, was born in autumn 2015. At first they figured it would be perfect—they record at home, so they would just get some recording done while they took some time at home with their newborn. “It turns out they don’t really jibe with each other, like brand-new, wailing infant and silent-room-that-you-need-to-record,” Michael said in an interview that first year. Eventually they built a studio in their backyard. Louie wasn’t sleeping well, which meant that Cary Ann and Michael weren’t either. They wondered how they would ever write a song.
They became obsessive schedulers. “If we could give each other a few hours in the day just to be off the hook—this is your time, go do whatever you want with it, you can go and work in the garden or sit there and try to write a song,” Michael told me. “I subscribe to the method of writing songs where you clock in—I work well with deadlines, windows. Maybe in the past, Cary was more of a free spirit, waiting for the muse to come and strike. That’s just really difficult with kids.”
Cary Ann said she was a work in progress. “I’ve certainly developed habits that allow me to show up undistracted, because I have a hard time turning off mom mode and going into creative mode,” she said. “You know, if it’s write a song or make sure there’s groceries in the house, I’m going to make sure there’s groceries in the house. Because I’m hungry.”
Their son, Oskar, was born in January. They bring the kids on tour with them. Nowadays they tour in a bus, complete with separate bed spaces and a bassinet in the back for Oskar. The kids like the rumbles and vibrations of the bus, and they sleep well with the white noise of the highway.
7. Marigold was born the day before the summer solstice, two years ago. She was born in our bedroom in DeLand, a central Florida town full of lizards, Spanish moss, and biker bars. It’s a major hub for skydiving and snake venom extraction, and home to a liberal arts college, where my wife was a painting professor. It’s not a retirement community or a tourist destination, exactly, but seems to be a way station for people in aspirational transition: not yet living out a Jimmy Buffett song, but at least dressing the part.
In the first few months after Marigold was born, I would sit down to respond to an email and then get up halfway through to relieve Grace and change a diaper and then sit back down to finish the note and realize that two weeks had passed. On one of our early excursions with Marigold, to a pond near our house, we saw a family of ducks walk by and Grace started weeping. We were not sleeping much.
I remember lying in bed, passing our squirming red baby back and forth, chest to chest, thumbing the unused soles of her feet. Narrating the life to come, explaining to each other how we would conjure time for Grace to paint and time for me to write. Then Marigold broke in with wild hiccups, her very first, and I reached for my phone to capture the moment.
8. My first interview with Shovels & Rope was by telephone. My daughter was sick. And in the midst of a “sleep regression.” This is the clinical and precise term that parent-advice blogs use to diagnose an utter mystery.
“Oh man,” Michael said. “I’m sorry. If you could see my eyes—”
A languid talker, he paused. “I know what your eyes look like right now.”
“The international society of dads,” Cary Ann said.
“We’re all gonna be all right,” she told us later, as we were getting off the phone, and then she said it again. “We’re all gonna be all right.”
9. When I was a teenager in Nashville, I used to go to the basement of a pizza joint to see this girl I knew a little bit play guitar and sing songs. She wore a punk rock getup—dog collar, dyed hair spiky and short—and she sang cover songs and a few originals. It’s one of those memories that zags through time because back then, sitting on the concrete floor, I was narrating a future: This girl was going to be a star someday, and I would say, hey, I saw her play way back when. The acoustics were terrible, but it made no difference. It registered to my teenage self that I had been using the word awesome, but this is what the word was actually for: She sang like the mouth of a river breaking into the ocean.
Later, we became better friends. My senior year of high school, she was my date to homecoming at my school; I was her date to prom at hers. Then we both went off to college, kept in periodic touch, then lost touch, until this year, I wrote her, “Cary Ann, been a minute, how about I write a story?”