by Alexandra Hall
Let’s do a quick roleplay. You’re getting to know someone new. You’re running through the standard questions. What do you do? What was your quarantine hobby? Man, this weather… am I right? And so on. Then, the question comes.
What kind of music do you like?
Before you can even consciously form a reply, the response that has haunted most of us at some point or another comes rolling off the tongue.
“I like pretty much everything… except country.”
There seem to be two types of people in the world: those who love country music and those who throw temper tantrums when the genre is even mentioned. People are repulsed by the polished pop-country artists who just look like clones of one another, singing what feels like the same songs packaged by different hands. Even if we indulge in a song from time to time, there is still a pang of bizarre guilt associated with it.
I will agree with Blake Shelton on one thing: we all have a hillbilly bone.
When you first hear his cooing yodel and steady strumming, you would probably never guess that Nick Shoulders grew up playing and screaming in punk bands. Punk and country seem to be at opposite ends of the musical spectrum, even with all of their subgenres. More threads connect the two than one might think. The topics that fuel these genres are often issues of being “the outsider.” They embrace comradery in societal separation. Punk and country are founded upon principles like anti-establishment, independent and self-produced creation, and focusing on representing a certain group of people.
Whether you’re a Cash or a Ramone, these genres do what music is truly meant to do. They create very passionate communities that strive to speak for the people. If you don’t believe me, wander into a mosh pit or a dance hall and you’ll see the vibrancy that both environments radiate. Not to mention that each genre has a designated code of conduct which could either involve slamming into strangers with the force of God or two-stepping.
It was because we liked dancing. whether that was two-stepping down in New Orleans or in a mosh pit in some moldy garage in Arkansas, movement and having a dynamic attraction to music is what attracted me to both ends of the specturm.
Shoulders is now well-known outside of bars in the south. A performance of “Snakes and Waterfalls” has amassed nearly two million views on Youtube. Alongside this video and his other personal releases, Shoulders appears in three videos by Western AF, a company that produces off-stage, intimate performances featuring modern musicians. He also uploaded a submission to NPR’s Tiny Desk contest which brought even more attention to his work. He’s released two full-length albums, a 2018 release titled Lonely Like Me and his 2019 album Okay, Crawdad, both of which have been successful.
As he got swept up in the algorithm and gained this quick success primarily through Youtube videos, the COVID-19 pandemic halted any plans to tour or move onto more projects. he spent 2020 revisiting past songs, honing his craft, and working on his third album.
When asked about what this hurricane of success felt like, Shoulders said, “The whole thing is baffling to me. I’m just not able to see the tangible results yet, so it’s a mystery to me right now.”
However distanced Shoulders was from his audience and likely will be for the near future, Youtube comments and social media engagement reveal a true fan infatuation with him and all that he has to offer. People are clearly drawn to his eccentricity and honesty, the two existing in a perfectly human balance.
He seems composed of these contrapositives. He’s simple but complex. A man but also a time capsule. Where you’d expect to find those cloned cowboys with pristine white hats and fantastic orthodontic work, you’ll find Shoulders in the hot Arkansas sun wearing jean cutoffs and singing Blondie (which yes, will be on the upcoming album). He exists in one’s mind in overgrown expanses of grass and on the porch of some dilapidated house. These descriptions are directly aligned with Shoulders’ self-proclaimed creation of “grampa music.”
From Fayetteville to New Orleans, location plays a huge role in his creative process. Shoulders is also an accomplished illustrator. He’s designed everything from his album covers to an entire miniseries of illustrations dedicated to teaching people about the history of country music. His visual artwork is just as unique as his sound, and the two are strikingly similar in their aesthetics. Shoulders describes his visual art using terms like “manic” and “bizarre,” characteristics that make it just as striking as his music.
“When I talk about landscape threads in my voice, like how I learned to yodel by yelling across a rocky holler– I mean that I learned to read those shapes and colors and contrast and line qualities from those same rocky bluffs. I’m just sort of an absorbent backdrop for everything I encounter.”
The places we spend the most time in as individuals inevitably shape us and leak into anything we create, say, or do. With the current state of the world feeling increasingly more divided, it is our source material that brings us together. Universal experiences. Shared hometowns. Unique dialects.
Shoulders’ third album, Home on the Rage is set to release on April 20th. The album is aptly named, as it explores the different avenues of style that he is navigating that all have common asphalt as their foundation. The fourteen-song album is his finest work yet. There’s a sophistication to this release. The songs vary in tone and tempo more than his previous albums, and a handful of covers are mixed in with some of his originals. Whether it’s Binkley Brothers’ Dixie Clodhoppers’ “Rise When the Rooster Crows” or Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” Shoulders has a gem for everyone in this release.
“I’m not just a honky tonker. I studied old-time banjo and mercilessly ruined whole aspects of my life by the amount of blues I was listening to. I wanted this album to show my influences and where I come from,” Shoulders said.
Shoulders steps into his boots with Home on the Rage, taking us on a tour of the highs and lows to his musical mountains. This is a pivotal record for him, one filled with revisited songs and ones that hold musings from past generations, both of which reveal his true talent for songwriting and articulating his experiences.
In the fall of 2020, Shoulders and Kurt DeLashmethas formally founded their record label, Gar Hole Records. The label now features Chris Acker, a fellow former punk kid and country enthusiast. Although the artist lineup is slim at the moment, Acker is a perfect example of the kind of music that Gar Hole Records hopes to serve. His lyricism is grounded and yet carries you away in melody. He pays homage to artists of the past while also paving a new road for the present day. Sound familiar?
Country music, punk music, and the Ozark mountains have one thing in common for Nick Shoulders: history. By treating his music like an “archeological escapade,” he is viewing today’s present state of music through the pages of its past, found in old records and sediment layers alike.
Shoulders is not at the forefront of changing the general perception of country music. He’s at the forefront of returning to the genre’s roots and showing them in their true light. A light, which in the mainstream, has been oversimplified and drowned in neon. A light that casts a genre and its listeners under a contrarian political shadow, blinding people with its intensity. The country music scene is not being seen.
Shoulders pays credit where credit is due, and a lot of country artists seem to be deeply in debt. He says he is just a messenger, but through Gar Hole Records and his incredibly collaborative albums, he is starting to make waves in a movement towards an honest country genre: re-invented to be more in tune with its roots.
I was a newbie to yodeling before Nick Shoulders. I was the person who lumped an entire genre with its rich history into a shoebox and threw it into the back of my closet. I now identify as a honky tonker.
As part of my conversion to being a honky tonker, I listened to Shoulders’ first two albums on repeat in my car. One afternoon, I was sitting in a parking lot listening to Okay, Crawdad with my windows down. A man approached my car hesitantly with his palms up. As I reached for my pepper spray, he popped his head near my passenger seat window and politely asked what the music was. I then helped a grown man download Spotify and connect with his new favorite artist.
Shoulders is as original and as genuine as you can ever hope for an artist to be. I don’t think country music titans and their followers will immediately embrace him, but the outsiders always win in the end. While some artists get swept up in the fast lane of success and drain themselves until they are shells of people, Shoulders will take the scenic route up.
Isn’t that what this is all about?
Until next time,
Check Nick out here:
Home on the Rage out now! https://open.spotify.com/album/4jUB4Hj49E4v9bOKOuHb0M?si=vkwrgz1rR6-RDsEMdCkwTQ
Gar Hole Records: https://garholerecords.com/
Featured Image: Connor Reever/ Juno Dunes, https://www.instagram.com/junodunes/?hl=en
Also mentioned: Chris Acker (info found on Gar Hole Records website), https://www.instagram.com/chrisacker_growthsprout/?hl=en
Western As Fuck: https://www.westernaf.net/