Talking High Water Fest with Shovels & Rope

The Charleston, South Carolina, duo open up about their hometown music festival—and reveal the full lineup for 2019

Photo: Courtesy of AC Entertainment

Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst (AKA Shovels & Rope) at High Water Festival 2018.

As Shovels & Rope, Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst have captivated crowds around the world with their larger-than-life stage presence and barn-burning take on Americana. But last year, the husband-and-wife duo turned their focus to their own backyard: creating the High Water Festival in North Charleston, South Carolina.

“We play a lot of festivals,” says Trent, who believes their experience on stage helped them home in on a winning formula for a new festival—smaller crowds and multiple stages without competing time slots. “If the two bands that you really want to see are playing back-to-back, you can actually see both of them and not have to miss any of the set.” In its first two years, High Water established itself as a standout in the Southern festival landscape, pairing G&G favorites like St. Paul & the Broken Bones and Margo Price with waterfront views and sold-out crowds. The action isn’t just on stage, either: Culinary experiences and conservation activities go beyond the music each year to give attendees a deeper look at the Lowcountry.

This year’s festival will take place April 13-14, 2019, at Riverfront Park. Today, Garden & Gun is honored to be the first to announce High Water’s 2019 lineup, which includes Leon Bridges, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, The Secret Sisters, Lilly Hiatt, and—of course—Shovels & Rope. Jenny Lewis, Dr. Dog, The Head & The Heart, and Lord Huron also top the bill, with festival-scene mainstays like Phosphorescent, Butch Walker, Blitzen Trapper, and J. Roddy Walston & The Business following close behind. Plenty of must-see up-and-coming talent will be present, too: Lera Lynn, Mitski, Hayes Carll, and The War & Treaty will all be performing, and you won’t want to miss rising Lowcountry stars Ranky Tanky. Rounding out the lineup are Durand Jones & The Indications, Michael Nau, Thelma & The Sleaze, and the Shrimp Records Family Band.

Here, Trent and Hearst talk about the festival’s future, Charleston’s music scene, and the importance of giving back.

shovels & rope

Photo: Sully Sullivan

Trent and Hearst backstage at High Water 2017.

The festival sold out each of the first two years, which is no easy feat. What do you think draws people in?

Trent: I think that the lineup has a lot to do with it. We try to get bands that we’re excited about, and I think that Charleston is kind of starving to see some of these acts. A lot of [touring artists] skip Charleston. People just don’t know that there’s anything going on down here. But this city loves music. All we have to do is convince the bands to come play, and it’s a win-win.

Hearst: We try to bring bands to Charleston to show off our city and the beautiful location, but also to help new artists build a local audience so that they’ll continue to come back, High Water or not.


Cary Ann was born in Mississippi, and Michael, you’re from Denver. What made you choose Charleston—as your home and as High Water’s?

Trent: It mostly has to do with the people. The music community is exceptional in Charleston. Cary went to college here, and I moved out here with a band I was playing in. We were blown away by how many great songwriters were here and unknown. It wasn’t this competitive, cut-throat thing; it was familial. Now, we’ve been here a long time, and a lot of those people we met in the music scene are our best friends. We’re raising kids together, and still play together all the time.


You had a child not long before you launched the festival. Was it a deliberate decision to make High Water the kind of place a family could come together?

Trent: Definitely. At the same time, you don’t want to mess with somebody’s rock n’ roll experience too much, either. We’re always thinking about how we can improve, and how we can make it so that people can bring their kids and hang out, so that everybody feels safe, and you can get away from the crowd if you need to.


Outside of High Water, what’s a must-do for anyone visiting Charleston for the first time?

Trent: You would be missing out if you didn’t try to spend some time on the water. There’s water everywhere, and there’s beautiful marshland. If you can, you need to find somebody with a boat. That’s a thing that I didn’t experience for a long time living here, and then it blew my mind. I was like, Oh my God! This has been here the whole time!


High Water has worked with charities like Water Mission and Charleston Waterkeeper since the beginning. Why is that important to you?

Hearst: We wanted to start a festival that had a bit of a do-gooder spirit. Our manager Paul Bannister and our partner Bryan Benson came up with the idea that volunteers could serve their community for tickets, instead of just [working] at the festival, and a portion of the proceeds from each ticket sold go to different charities that we support, too. Those organizations have a huge imprint here in town—heck, our neighbor down the street is one of Water Mission’s primary activists. They also bring clean water all over the world to people who don’t have access to it. They have done such a good job and have such great history, and they’re located right there in North Charleston serving a larger purpose. It was and is a really great fit for us, and I hope that’s something we can expand.


Do you have any long-term goals for High Water, as it continues to become more and more of a fixture in the festival calendar?

Hearst: In some ways, we hope the festival will remain the same: the same size, the same kind of vibe. But we’ll push to be greener, we’ll push to always be a super inclusive festival, and a place that’s good for people to bring family to. We’ll continue to strive to serve the community that hosts us—find a way to be a force for greater good. And we will just take it a few years at a time. As long as we’re privileged enough to have the ability to put this festival on, we will do the best that we can to make it a great experience.

High Water Festival tickets will be available for purchase on Thursday, November 15.