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Shovels & Rope Explains Its New Covers Album, Track By Track

Shovel & Rope's cover album, <em>Busted Jukebox Volume 1</em>, comes out Nov. 20.
Courtesy of the artist.
Shovel & Rope's cover album, Busted Jukebox Volume 1, comes out Nov. 20.

Shovels & Rope's new album of covers, Busted Jukebox Vol. I, took a village to create. The folk-rock duo of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent called in their talented friends and collaborators to tackle songs from Elvis Costello, Nine Inch Nails and Guns n' Roses, just to name a few. Each tune is imbued with Shovels & Rope's signature sound and the individual influence of the guests on each track.

The result is an eclectic collection of songs, each with its own soul and its own story. Here, Hearst and Trent tell the tales, track by track, of the making of their fourth album. Busted Jukebox Vol. I comes out Nov. 20.

1. Unknown Legend (with Shakey Graves)

"I think the first time we tried this one was at Newport Folk Festival '14, during which we had a sort of 'Shovels & Rope & Friends' after-party show at a small theater where we did collaborations with Lucius, Shakey Graves and Valerie June. We basically did Shovels & Rope arrangements of some cover songs we really liked, featuring guest vocals from some artists who we really admired. [Neil Young's] 'Unknown Legend' was the song we did with Shakey. We've played a lot of shows with Shakey over the past couple of years — all over the U.S., Canada and Australia. We started doing this song together during the encore, and it always felt really great. The arrangement with just the three of us was sparse but pretty powerful. On the recording, Shakey sings the lead and we play the instruments and sing the background vocals. We recorded his vocal in a little hotel room in Perth, Australia (you can see a picture of us recording it in the photo collage in the inside of the album artwork). We didn't have a proper mic stand, so if you look closely you can see a makeshift microphone-stand-holder thing attached to a hotel chair, which is stacked on top of a hotel table. Our laundry is freshly folded in the background."

2. Bullet Belt (with Butch Walker)

"Butch has been a longtime friend of ours. We knew him way before Shovels & Rope ever existed, and we've worked together in all sorts of capacities. He produced a record for both of our former bands, and we've worked with him on a couple of his albums co-writing and singing. 'Bullet Belt' is a song that [Michael] wrote with Butch for his record The Spade that came out in 2011. We opened for him when he was touring that album, and they weren't performing 'Bullet Belt' because it was so fast and wordy that it was a physical feat to try to pull it off. Butch would come out and do a song with us during our set, so one night, off the cuff, we surprised him by medleying into a sort of uptempo swamp-swing version of it while he was onstage with us, just to try to throw him for a loop and have some fun. There was something about that version of the song stuck in the back of our minds ever since, so we decided to make a recording of it. Butch came through Charleston recently to play a show and had a day off, so we convinced him to ride his motorcycle (he tours with motorcycles in his bus trailer) over to our house and cut a vocal for our reinterpretation of his song that we co-wrote. After that, we all rode motorcycles down to the beach, and it was the best day. Again, there's a picture of us all at Folly Beach in the album artwork, as well as a picture of Butch singing in our home studio."

3. (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding (with Lucius)

"We came up with this arrangement for this song while on tour in Minneapolis. We were in a hotel room watching the news, and it was the 2012 presidential election that night. I remember it was just anger and tension on every channel. (Hey, I guess that's what makes news TV! But I digress.) We felt compelled to put something positive out into the world during a tense time, so we recorded a sweet, lullaby-type version of this song and put it up on our Facebook page and also opened up with it at our show. Fast-forward to the Newport Folk Festival '14, and we asked Lucius if they wanted to sing it with us. They graciously obliged and pretty much stole the entire show with their performance. They only sing the background vocals on this recording, but their contribution is so powerful that it pretty much steals the show here, too. We recorded this one at home, and they sent their vocal tracks to us in an email that we will never delete."

4. Patience (with The Milk Carton Kids)

"This one was a lot of fun to put together. The road is long, but it is narrow, so if you're out there working, you're gonna bump into the same people quite a bit, which is how it's been with us and The Milk Carton Kids. We have been friends and fans of theirs for the past few years, and it's been really great to watch them grow and achieve a lot of well-deserved success. When we were coming up with the idea for this record, we had some very specific ideas of who we wanted to guest on what songs. And then we also had two columns on a page: One was a list of artists who we really wanted to get on here (and who might actually consider it), and the other was a list of songs that we thought would be fun to try for this project. This one came about via those columns. The Milk Carton Kids + Shovels & Rope + Guns n' Roses was the subject line of the email we sent over to those guys — I know, no need to read the rest, right? — and they were kind enough to get on board without really knowing how it was gonna end up sounding. The result is a kind of duo-duet with them taking a verse and chorus and us taking a verse and chorus, and then we all sing together at the end. Kenneth Pattengale of TMCK adds some really great guitar on here, as well. you'll know it when you hear it. Spoiler alert: We do the ending."

5. Boys Can Never Tell (with J. Roddy Walston)

"This was probably the seed that grew the tree that bore the fruit that the squirrel ate that deposited the seed for this Busted Jukebox project. Let us explain. A couple years ago, J. Roddy hit us up about us doing a live video recording of one of his songs with him. We've known Rod for longer than anyone else on here (except maybe Butch and Inlaws), and have played in all the dive bars together, and have been in the same trenches and drunk from the same gutters and puked in the same alleys next to the same trashcans. It goes deep. Anyway, we didn't really know his exact vision for this (neither did he?), but we of course agreed to do it, and what happened ended up being a really great and inspiring time. He came over to our house, and we worked up a version of a really great song of his called 'Boys Can Never Tell' (a gender-bending heartbreaker about a father's unshakable love for his son). We ended up sort of leading most of the song vocally, and Rod sings a third-part harmony and then takes over during the bridge. You can see a live video of it here. Like I said, it was probably the catalyst for the seed of the idea of making a guest-star-studded collaborative covers record, so when we finally got organized, we of course wanted to have this song on here. The version we did for BJV1 is similar to the backyard recording, but with a couple of extra instruments like mandolin and piano that give it a bit of a loose barroom feel. We stopped by Roddy's rehearsal space in Richmond while we were on tour and got him to lay down his vocal there, and then we all went over to his house and listened to records and his wife sang some opera for us. She's incredible."

6. Nothing Takes The Place Of You (with JD McPherson)

"JD was one of the first people to say yes when we contacted him about this. But his vocal track was the most elusive and difficult to acquire, primarily because he's been so busy touring in support of his incredible new album Let The Good Times Roll. If you were to print out the email volley that passed back and forth between us, it is at least eight feet long and reads like a novel. It's rife with coy intro, excitement, emotion, apologies, brief disappointment, a spark of hope and, in the end, triumph. We caught JD in the middle of his year blowing up (in a good way): U.S. and overseas travel, a family move, and multiple tours supporting rock god Robert Plant. Cary has always had a major thing for Toussaint McCall's "Nothing Takes The Place of You." She sings it at sound check all the time. It's one of her absolute favorite songs. We decided to do a Lennon-style version of the song featuring piano, slide guitar and some gospel-style oooohs. JD sings (the hell out of) the lead vocal on here, while we do our best Ronettes impression on the bgvs. Really happy this one made it on the record, and really thankful JD bent over backwards to help us out and get it done."

7. Last (with Caroline Rose)

"We joke that if we had met in junior high, we would have been instantly attracted to each other's scribbled-on JanSport backpacks and oversized NIN concert T-shirts. Truth is that Nine Inch Nails was one of the first vessels through which our personal teen angst was so purely mirrored into such a detailed reflection that we could look in its eyes, acknowledge its power and then consume it. Caroline Rose is one of our absolute favorites. She makes great recordings, and you can't put her in a box, which is something very admirable in this business today. We thought it might be the best kind of mess to turn an old NIN tune into a psychobilly hoedown from hell. So we cooked up a squawky, handclap-driven, bouncy, twisted arrangement of 'Last' (from the album Broken) and sent it over to Caroline, and she happily laid down a beautifully overdriven, f***-you vocal and sent it right back. This is one of our faves on the record, because it's a total re-imagining of the song. We dressed it up in an outfit it would probably never wear, but might get some weird compliments in."

8. Strangers (with Inlaws)

"There is a sometimes band out of Charleston, S.C., called Inlaws that is a collaboration between two very talented songwriters who each have their own projects. Owen Beverly (Indianola) and Joel Hamilton (Mechanical River) happen to get together every once in a while and make, in our humble opinion, some of the greatest music out there. These guys are two of our oldest hometown friends and a couple of the best songwriters we know. Our little scene in Charleston is very familial. We have genuine love for each other that goes way beyond music. We are all actual friends. We've worked together in all types of situations, from wedding gigs to bartending and catering shifts to s***** bars to sold-out theaters. This song [by The Kinks] has some achingly beautiful sentiments in it, and was one we specifically wanted to do with our hometown family. We tracked the music at home and recorded the vocals in a backstage green room in Iowa City while we were on tour together last spring. It's another duo-duet where we mix and match who takes what verse and we all sing the tag, 'We are not two, we are one.' This one features Charleston drummer/songwriter Jack Burg (Punknsnakes) singing on the gang vocal and playing percussion. There is one more Inlaw whose voice is not featured on this take, but whose magic is definitely present on this record: 'Cousin' Andrew Dixon plays guitar with Inlaws and happens to be the guy who mixed this album. We like to keep it in the family."

9. Perfect Day (with Preservation Hall Jazz Band)

"A few years ago, we played Voodoo Fest in New Orleans and received a very flattering request to come perform at a midnight show at Preservation Hall with these fantastic musicians. In our minds, were were saying, 'I'm pretty sure there's been some mistake and they have us confused with some higher-caliber musicians,' but when we met them, it was so great and easygoing. Lou Reed had just passed away, and we asked the guys if they'd like to do a version of 'Perfect Day' with us to honor his memory. They were into it, we performed it together that night, and they played it so beautifully. Everybody's eyes were wet. Last year, when we were in town for NOLA Jazz Fest, Preservation Hall asked us if we'd like to do another midnight show. We of course said yes, but this time we brought a couple of mics and recorded this version during our rehearsal behind the club. It was a huge honor for us, and the recording is very special."

10. Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight

"We were again very honored, and also sure someone had made a mistake, when we were asked to be a part of an Emmylou Harris tribute show in January '15. It was a total star-studded show where many very well-known and respected artists (and us) performed versions of Emmylou songs and songs that she made famous. We did a kind of swampy take on 'Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight' that went over pretty well, and Rodney Crowell even complimented us on it while we both stood there with our mouths open, twisted in some sort of insane-looking smile, I'm sure. So anyway, we decided to put one song on this record that was just us with no guests, and this was the song. It's the closer on the record, and it ends with just our two voices a cappella — which seemed pretty fitting because that is, in a sense, the bones of the sound of our band."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Robin Hilton
Robin Hilton is a producer and co-host of the popular NPR Music show All Songs Considered.