There's a minor chord creeping behind every line on Swimmin' Time (Dualtone). The album is Shovels & Rope's follow-up to 2012's uplifting success story, O' Be Joyful, which earned song of the year from the Americana Music Awards for its lead track, "Birmingham," roughly telling the story of the band — married Charleston, South Carolina duo Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent. Swimmin' Time is full of apocalyptic soothsaying, fingers-crossed survival, and smiling while wading waist-deep in hard times. For the sweetness of "Mary Ann & One-Eyed Dan" (about a couple of weirdos finding true love) and "Save the World," there's the ferocious doo-wop of "Coping Mechanism," bursting mortgage bubble blues on "Evil" and the electric New Orleans dirge "Ohio."
"I've gone to Louisiana with a bulletproof bandana," the duo sings — a different picture from the Crescent City mentioned in the hopeful "Birmingham." The band has performed in New Orleans enough to know its ups and downs. Hearst, originally from Mississippi, says she grew up thinking of New Orleans as the Land of Oz.
"My cousins would run off to great adventures in New Orleans, it always had this kind of mysterious, mythical, action-packed mystique to it," she tells Gambit. "We've been going down there for years even when we were touring in the diviest of dives, just to get down there and get a feel for it, especially when there's not anything going on."
For Swimmin' Time, Hearst and Trent anchored themselves to their home in Johns Island, South Carolina, soaking up the area for the album's recurring water themes — from floods to sinking submarines. As they did for O' Be Joyful, the band recorded at home. Trent says they've never had to worry about label pressure for a "studio" version of Shovels & Rope.
"We don't have to worry about somebody else's opinion," Trent says. "It sounds like us when we take the reins."
"Warts and all," Hearst adds.
That DIY mindset is a holdover from the band's punk rock roots. Trent says he's happy to sell 100 records out of the back of a van.
"To know we can do that by ourselves, that feels better than people promising you a bunch of stuff and never coming through," he says.
"We were DIY because we didn't have any money," Hearst says. "We had to build it with what the two of us could accomplish. Michael has been on the other side in the big label machine where they build up your dreams in a house of cards. All your hopes and dreams crash around you and you're left penniless and in debt. ... We've been down both of those paths. When we set out to do this, we joke about moderated expectations, but we literally just realized, 'Well, whatever's good, this is going to work for us. We're not going to starve to death. We're going to go on a great adventure. We have each other.'"
The duo often sings together — Trent anchors the low end while Hearst roars with a charming, raspy twang — while switching off guitar and a minimal drum kit. They're each other's anchor, they say. And then there's Townes Van Zandt.
"He's the other anchor," Hearst says. "The hairy anchor."
Townes the dog (named after the legendary singer-songwriter) is a constant presence, whether sleeping curled in front of the bass drum in the band's practice room or inside the tour van (and now tour RV). "He's got seniority with the crew," Trent says.
"We had to do a bunch of fly dates and just got back from a short week-long run. Our bus driver was crestfallen that he wasn't on the bus with us," Hearst says. "We promised we'd never let that happen again."
The band's recent New Orleans shows include a 2014 gig with Hurray for the Riff Raff at Tipitina's and a headlining slot at the 2013 Voodoo Music + Arts Experience. The band's Jazz Fest appearance is its first.
"Night blooming jasmine on the front porch swing on a street Uptown," Hearst says, "you can't really beat that."