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Shovels and Rope | Photo: Leslie Ryann McKellar

On The Way: Shovels & Rope and The English Beat

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For the music fan, there is no greater sin than prejudice. I know because I have sinned, over and over again. I have judged music without hearing it, based on image or genre or any number of things that bear no relation to quality.

I have missed a lot of great music that way.

And I almost missed Shovels & Rope (pictured above) — who visit Kansas City for a show at Knuckleheads on Thursday March, 23 — because I thought I knew what they were. A man and a woman (in this case, married to each other) making a kind of rustic indie folk, like the Civil Wars or Buddy and Julie Miller. I like those acts. At times, there’s nothing I like better. But I already had them. I didn’t think I needed another version.

Of course, that was before I actually heard Shovels & Rope.

I take no pride in my prejudice. In fact, it makes me feel pretty dumb. Because the band I finally heard bore little relation to the one I imagined.

Shovels & Rope rock. Sure, they also shuffle and twang a little, but this is a forceful, shambolic duo that attacks rural Southern music the way that the White Stripes attacked the sounds of the urban, industrial North.

Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent were each pursuing solo careers when they met. They became a duo and then became a couple. They married in 2009. Three years later, they released their first album as Shovels & Rope. “O’ Be Joyful” garnered them immediate acclaim. The single “Birmingham” won Song of the Year in 2013 from the Americana Music Association.


Two albums of originals (and one set of covers) later, Shovels & Rope are fixtures of the Americana scene, with a surplus of sturdy, dynamic songs and the ragged chemistry between Hearst and Trent, who share vocal duties, often in their own sort of roughhouse harmony. Their most recent album, “Little Seeds” (released in October 2016), reveals two artists in sync and generating heat. The feel is akin to “Van Lear Rose,” the exceptional album that Loretta Lynn recorded with Jack White. It’s simultaneously fierce and tender, fiery and tuneful. Shovels & Rope are at a peak right now. It would be a great time to catch them.


That same night, also at Knuckleheads, veteran country troubadour Rodney Crowell appears, eight days in advance of the release of “Close Ties,” the 18th studio album in a stellar career. We chronicled that career last May when Crowell came through town. You can read that dispatch here.

The English Beat has a complicated history, beginning with the band’s own name. Known as The Beat in its native England since forming in 1978, the “English” was added in North America to avoid confusion with a terrific American power pop band of the same name. (That The English Beat was called “The British Beat” in Australia only adds to the confusion)

One of the key bands in the English ska-revival of the late 1970s (along with The Specials and The Selecter), the English Beat were stars on their home soil, with a string of hit singles and albums. The band was also a favorite among new wave fans in the States, where their infectious and highly danceable songs became the preferred party music for a whole generation of kids on the fringe. Songs like “Mirror in the Bathroom” and their scorching cover of the Miracles’ “Tears of a Clown” possessed a brilliant, spiky intensity. And though the band’s original run was brief, the Beat’s evolution was notable. By the time of 1982’s “Special Beat Service” (the original lineup’s last album), the group had graduated to a sort of lush and accomplished alt-pop, highlighted by the likes of “I Confess” and “Save It for Later.”


Despite its popularity (especially in the UK), the band splintered. Guitarist Andy Cox and bassist David Steele formed Fine Young Cannibals and achieved a level of stateside success that had eluded The Beat. Meanwhile, Dave Wakeling (the band’s singer and second guitarist) and Ranking Roger (a “toaster” — think a Jamaican-style rapper) formed General Public (which also briefly included The Clash’s Mick Jones) and made a splash in the United States with the buoyant hit “Tenderness.”


After the 1980s, though, all of The English Beat’s founding members largely receded from view as popular tastes changed. Still, a demand for the music remains.

The English Beat will visit Kansas City on Friday, March 24 for a show at Knuckleheads. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say an English Beat will visit.

In the UK, Ranking Roger leads a version of the band, but in the U.S., The English Beat is Dave Wakeling’s baby. An ex-pat living in California, Wakeling leads a seven-piece band that plays the best of The Beat, plus a song or two from General Public. It is the version led by Wakeling — always the face and the voice of The English Beat — that will roll into Kansas City for an evening of spirited, skanking, pop-ska fun.

Michael Atchison writes about music for The Bridge. He is the author of three books, including the new novel “Mellow Submarine,” which is available from Amazon. He’s on Twitter at @MichaelAtchison.

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