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Shovels and Rope's dynamic duo 

Charleston group set to open Avetts' New Year's Eve show

Townes Van Zandt might make an appearance at Time Warner Cable Arena on Dec. 31. No, not the deceased musician — wouldn't that be a trip — but the hound dog of Charleston, S.C., husband-and-wife folkers Shovels and Rope.

Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent take Townes with them everywhere, and he usually makes fast friends with club owners and patrons. So, perhaps they'll bring him into Charlotte's largest concert venue on New Year's Eve when the duo opens for the Avett Brothers.

"I think he'd be bummed if he didn't go on the road with us," Trent says. "He's good medicine for everybody. Some venues are bummed when he's not with us."

A year-ending gig with the Avetts tops off a year that began with Shovels and Rope's national television debut on Late Show with David Letterman last January. They're big names for a small-town band who's been on the road relentlessly since releasing their 2008 debut album, Shovels and Rope, under their own names. They took the name for their performances while playing a raw brand of folk on a guitar and beat-up drum kit. In 2012, the duo released a follow-up album, O' Be Joyful. It's been a whirlwind of performances and thousands of highway miles ever since.

So, have they had a chance to look at how far they've come or are things too busy to stop and think about it? "We're happy to have the work," Trent says. "We're happy to be staying busy, but, no, we don't have any time."

"You know that's right!" Hearst chimes in.

The duo's down-home Americana has won them plenty of fans. While Hearst and Trent had solid solo careers before the Shovels and Rope album was released, as a duo their songwriting has only strengthened. Each singer/musician takes time behind the drum kit or in front of the microphone with the guitar. Each can lead a song or offer harmonies when needed.

Spending so much time on the road is physically demanding, as expected, but the couple also works it to their advantage by being able to work creatively when they find any down time.

"It's served us well to spend a lot of time together in a creative way," Hearst says. "Some people are surprised at that, but it's like running any kind of mom-and-pop business."

Growing popularity and big-name gigs have some people in their hometown suspecting that they've "made it," but Hearst and Trent are busting their butts just like 99 percent of musicians everywhere. They're still playing the same junkyard drum kit as always, too.

"Cary's tried to make me throw it away a couple of times already," Trent says as Hearst laughs. "We keep it on the road with us because we feel like it's our friend. We've played other kits on the road, but we always keep it to a kick drum and snare drum."

Hearst notes that when they were offered the New Year's Eve gig with the Avetts, they high-fived about it. They've been picky about what shows they perform on that night — they performed with the Lumineers in Denver last year — because there are so many big events all over just about every city, but this was one opportunity they jumped on.

Performing in a large venue does have its challenges, but it's not a daunting task. Hearst and Trent have no doubt that Avetts fans appreciate good songs and are sure their sound will be big enough to fill the venue. It's part of their relaxed approach — one that's done well within the band's sonic simplicity.

"I think the Avetts crowd is going to be open to what we do and to our type of music. They're songwriter fans," Trent says, noting that he and Hearst each released a solo album. "We keep our shows pretty free because we have four albums worth of material we can play. With the drums, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, harmonica and voices — that's the palette we've been working from but you can do a lot with it. We don't want the whole set to sound the same. Sometimes it's good to sound like a full band, but sometimes you just want two voices."

"Four hands and two feet — that's what we've got," Hearst adds. "There's still plenty of room to experiment, but there's always a limit, too."

As for Townes waiting in the wings when Shovels and Rope exits stage right, Trent says, "I don't know if we've tested the waters [of bringing him to an arena] yet, but maybe we'll just show up with him and see how it goes."

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