The Ballad of Shovels & Rope is a familiar tale with no great plots twists or stunning revelations, at least not for anyone who has paid even passing attention to stories of aspiring artists. So why did I love it so much? The characters.
It may seem harsh or jaded to reduce Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst, the husband-wife duo that comprises this band, to characters but as they said in an interview promoting their latest album Swimmin Time, they aren't selling or sharing their marriage at the merch table after shows. What they reveal in this little film is a snapshot. We get to see a small window into who they are and that part seems real enough, especially in the context of their music but we aren't getting an all-access pass to their lives. And you know what? That suits me just fine. A little voyeurism can be fun but in our oversharing world -- and God knows I'm too frequently a part of that scourge -- a little mystery is a good thing, too.
Where was I? Ah, yes, a familiar story, a love story on multiple levels. There is the obvious one, a love story between a wife and husband. We see the two of them contemplate being separated for a brief time while Trent leaves their South Carolina home for some session work in Los Angeles, starting to miss one another before his plane leaves. We see Hearst worrying over Trent, making sure he's packed everything he needs. We also see Trent try and soothe the righteous anger of Hearst following a tough gig when a venue owner failed to deliver on promises made. The view we see reveals them to be exactly who we hope they are and watching their struggle and sacrifice makes us root for them if we weren't already.
It's also a love story between two artists and the music they make. We see them write together and separately as they fashion the songs that make up their wonderful O Be Joyful record. We get to hear the songs in various states and watch as they are transformed from sketches to fully realized art. We see Trent and Hearst struggle when they think they've lost the plot on a song or are having trouble singing or playing. Their dogged determination is evident in the finished work but also on their fatigued and sometimes frustrated faces.
Making the record is only one part of this story. Ballad lets us watch a couple build a family business and wrestle with the choices that could make or break them. Hearst and Trent have discussions amongst themselves as well as with their manager as they work through just how independent they want to be in launching this record and the shows they'll perform in support of it. Should they continue doing everything themselves or should they partner with a small label that can do some of that leg work? How will that affect the future family they hope to one day start?
There's something else that's familiar about this story: the good guys win and they leave us wanting more. The Ballad of Shovels & Rope is a brisk hour and 12 minutes but with another album finished and tour in progress, we can rejoice in knowing there is more where that came from.