Monday, June 21, 2010

Carry Ann Hearst

So HSW contributor Drew Harkins is, believe or not, a bona fide writer. That is, he's occasionally paid to produce. I know, I know -- in this era of unfiltered bloggery, that seems novel. But by gum, Drew is a top notch scribe, so why shouldn't he earn some scratch for his skills?

As evidence, I give you his recent Free Times piece on the lovely Cary Ann Hearst, South Carolina's own alt-country dynamo. Be sure to visit the page, linked in the previous sentence, so to give the excellent Columbia alternative rag a few hits, thus boosting ad revenue. But for your convenience, I've republished it below. Without further ado:

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“I got a couple iiiirons in the faaaiire,” Cary Ann Hearst drawls over the phone as we discuss her schedule. Though her thick Southern accent drips with a politeness as sweet as sugared pecans, finding the time to talk about her new album isn’t in the cards, partly because of her busy schedule.

Cary Ann Hearst
Part-time waitress and full-time firecracker, the Charleston-based, Nashville-raised singer has a bit of a busy creative brand — traipse the Holy City and you might find her vending at a street fair, performing with a burlesque troupe or starring in an episode of the television show No Reservations, during which she sells a chocolate Coca-Cola cake to gourmand Anthony Bourdain at Jestine’s Kitchen downtown. Somehow amid this flurry of activity, Hearst still finds time to remain one of South Carolina’s most eminent sweethearts.

The reason that particular designation endures is not just because she’s a cutie. It’s also because she plays some damn good country music. Now, if you were to get technical, you might best describe her catalogue as a mix of folk and Southern rock, sometimes with inflections of Cajun stomp and hillbilly shuffle thrown in for good measure. Regardless, her musical persona is as directionally challenged as her many personalities. On the one hand, she has the honky-tonk pedigree of Miranda Lambert, replete with sass, vigor and the whole nine. On the other hand, she has a mean artistic streak that often veers into a very noir thematic territory a la Neko Case. Sometimes, she purrs and croons like Wanda Jackson. Other times you’d swear she’s reminiscent of John Denver. It’s this confusing duality that guides her Americana pastiche and keeps the dorks at No Depression guessing.

Oh, did I tell you that she stands about five feet tall in her cowgirl boots, yet can wail and howl like God’s own truth? Mmm-hmm. Yep.

Hearst can talk about having irons in the fire, but it seems more like she’s burning the candle at both ends right about now. When she plays with her backing band, she calls them The Gun Street Girls. She also plays in a duo with husband Michael Trent, formerly of Charleston’s The Films, called Shovels and Rope. (They played the Cannes Film Festival and hung out with movie stars, you know.) Not to mention that she and Trent, with the help of other Lowcountry musicians, founded a local, artist-run label called Shrimp Records.

One of the first releases for the label is her latest solo EP, Are You Ready To Die. Recorded in L.A. and cut with renowned producer and erstwhile Georgia boy Butch Walker, the album is a bit of a departure for the notoriously down-home girl. It’s slick in the sense that the instrumentation is more ornate than her previous D.I.Y. effort, Pocahontas, but it’s not gussied up in the Taylor Swift sense. Because as Hearst knows best, banjo riffs and mandolin licks do not a country song make. Sometimes it’s turning the twang on its head by employing an accordion, as she does on the album’s zydeco-worthy opener, “The Thread.” Or rather, it’s the Ronettes-style doo-wop vocal riffs on the Orbisonian title track, or the saloon piano on “American Made Machine.” Hell, it could be the plod and yelp of the decidedly non-Hayseed Dixie “Hell’s Bells” that gives Heart’s brand of country its undeniable je ne sais quoi.

Whatever it is, it’s a verve that’s working for Hearst, who despite her contrarian urges, has an admittedly love-hate relationship with notoriously stodgy Music City. Sometimes you can envision her material being picked up by a major label. Sometimes you get the sense that she toys with the whim of becoming more “commercially viable.” Sometimes you wonder why it hasn’t happened yet.

Either way, it might not really matter. If Nashville never takes to Hearst’s particular firebrand, it’s their loss. She’s already beloved down here.

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