Before Nick Shoulders became the lilting folkster he is today, confidently peddling a trademark melding of heart-on-sleeve progressive politics with traditions plucked from the early 20th century, he spent his teenage years in Fayetteville playing “in the scariest bands possible.” Like the choices of so many adolescents, it was rebellious behavior, a response to feeling embarrassed by his rural-rooted family’s affinity for old-fashioned country music. “Not everyone thinks yodeling is sick, it turns out,” he told us with a hearty laugh.
But heavy music also spoke to him because of its political edge. “That reaction and that hostility to systems of oppression I found so inspiring and galvanizing in punk and metal music,” he said. Once he realized the same forms of protest were an essential part of traditional folk, however, he embraced it. “I was yelling that stuff in my hardcore bands and I just happen to be yodeling it now,” he said matter-of-factly.
Since the late 2010s, he’s been releasing records under his own name, starting with the “Lonely Like Me” EP and his debut full-length album, “Okay, Crawdad,” both of which were performed “straight to tape” with a group of musicians he assembled while living in New Orleans. Then, the pandemic pushed him back to the Ozarks, where he made the stripped back, mostly solo “Home on the Rage,” his sophomore LP.
“All Bad,” which came out via Gar Hole Records on Sept. 8, signals Shoulders’ return to a rowdy, full-band approach. Recorded with his band at Mashed Potato Studios, the New Orleans shotgun house where “Lonely Like Me” and “Okay, Crawdad” were tracked, as well as Homestead Recording in Fayetteville, the creation site of “Home on the Rage,” Shoulders describes his third full-length as “a good balance between that upland echoing whooping holler that we’re trying to capture and also that sweaty lowland dance feel.”
Though Shoulders has been firmly based in Fayetteville since 2020, we spoke with him over the phone in Casper, Wyo., where he was “wandering the alleys in the shade” on day 45 of a 57-stop tour. From there, he reflected on his origins, his new album and how the ancient mouth bow can be used as a resistance tool.
You have an extremely distinct style. I would categorize your music as folk, and yet you don’t really sound like any other contemporary folk artist I can think of. Is your way of singing and playing instinctive, or is it something you developed intentionally?
I think nature and nurture are pitched against each other a little bit in this instance. That vocal singing tradition and vibrato and the pitch of the whistling is something that I feel that I bodily inherited from south Arkansas and north Louisiana as well as from Appalachia and my Ozark family. It lives in me. I also got lucky enough to have access to a ton of woods and intact green space. I learned how to project my voice doing owl calls. So, in a sense, the style is really deeply a product of the Arkansas landscape and is inextricable from blue cave water and canebrakes. But it’s also something I’ve taken a lot of time to cultivate and understand that has not come naturally. I’ve had to really figure out how to lean into and understand the singing that I was passed down and heard all my life.
But taking that skill set into the world, I began to notice people responding to it and really loving it. I also noticed a huge deficit of what made country music compelling to me. So I’ve been taking my family’s vocal style — which is rooted in pre-microphone, pre-country-music-industry singing — and applying it to the 1920s, ‘30s, ‘40s early records of the genre when people were still drawing from playing styles outside of a commercial context.
We are very purposely trying to claim being a country band because that marketing — and that notion of country music as just being rural music — is attached to a very specific sociopolitical agenda. By attaching ourselves to the roots of country music and to the dance-driven and community-driven side of the genre that gets ignored, we’re trying to force a conversation. What is country music? Where does it come from? And why does it represent what it does to the average listener today?
Because so much of your sound is borrowed from the past and has a certain stylized quality, do you ever think of what you do as putting on a type of persona?
The Western side of country and western, the idea that it’s a theatrical role, the cowboy singers in the ‘30s from, like, suburban Cincinnati being a good example — it really feels like we’re avoiding that aspect in a very purposeful way. I think the world needs entertainment and entertainers and people who are just filling a role or a persona, but for me this is an incredibly, painfully honest and personal reclamation project on how to reorient a conversation about a genre that represents an act of resistance against systems of oppression and not the soundtrack to empire. That very purposeful reclamation makes it so that it’s impossible to feel like a role for me because it hurts.
Speaking of that idea of fighting oppression through music, I’ve noticed that your lyrics tend to gesture in the direction of society rather than the self. Not that you don’t ever get introspective, but your approach seems less confessional than a lot of other contemporary songwriters. Is that how you see it?
I would like to think that on this record there’s places to get a little bit of both. “Long Spring” is about climate grief and watching the natural world that raised me wither and disintegrate. I think that grief and that pain is personal. I try to voice that and still look outward and be like, “Hey, my suffering, my pain, my loneliness, my heartbreak is not contained to my own experience.” It’s intertwined with the material conditions that I live in with society and the culture that forms these opinions. I could write songs about jealousy, but I’m kind of too wrapped up in thinking about why I live in a patriarchal culture where jealousy is so intertwined in my emotions. At this very moment, I don’t feel important compared to what needs to be said.
Tell me about the writing process for “All Bad.”
Every one of these albums is kind of like lightning captured in a bottle. They’re very representative of a specific time and place that we were operating and creating in. This album was definitely written from the front seat of the tour van, rattling down the highways, dodging semi trucks and watching all the crops wither. It was a writing process that had the benefit of some space — one of the blessings of getting COVID during a blizzard is that you get a chance to sit down and put like 10 songs to paper that have just been floating around in your head — but it was largely just something that we were cobbling together on the road.
How is this record different from your previous releases?
It’s stylistically, lyrically and thematically just sort of the next record that we didn’t get to have after “Okay, Crawdad,” because that was put out and then suddenly we were in lockdown. A lot of our ascendence happened in the vacuum of COVID, where we weren’t really benefiting or touring off of the music that was now suddenly being played all over the world. And “Home on the Rage” was definitely the quiet folk solo effort that I thought fit the times.
The defining factor on this record is that we’ve had time. We’ve had years to play together. We’ve had a lot of grim and empowering experiences on the road. I think I finally understand so much more about the value of our craft and what it takes to be the embodiment of a folk tradition and to try to carry that weight. It feels like we finally have the space and time and skill set to deliver something that’s truly representative of what we’re trying to accomplish. And that’s different than putting out a straight-to-tape, live, living room record from a shotgun house in New Orleans that’s supposed to sound exactly like you do in some dancehall.
What song on “All Bad” are you the most proud of?
That’s a tough question. I feel a personal love and affection for “Up the Ouachita,” just being a funny little chance to dig into formative genres and also aspects of family history. My great-great-grandpa got shot in a cattle drive in north Louisiana and south Arkansas. He got buried in the woods outside Mar Rouge, Louisiana and his daughter — my great-grandmother — didn’t know that he wasn’t just a deadbeat dad that ran off until she was like 55 years old. I just learned that fun fact and have also poured a lot of time into studying and practicing Cajun and South Louisiana-adjacent music, so I felt compelled to make this weird nod to Cajun music and also to this family background that had this sort of bizarre, violent tale attached to it.
Unlike the full-band arrangements that make up most of the album, the song “Arkansaw Troubler” is performed almost exclusively on the mouth bow, with no vocals. How do you understand it fitting into the album as a whole?
When I was a little kid, I shot arrows and built bows in the woods with my friends. Eventually, I set that bow on my cheek and started whacking it with the arrow and got sounds out of it. Little did I know, I was participating in the world’s oldest stringed instrument. The mouth bow is something we see in cave paintings that is apparently tens of thousands of years old, if not older.
We’re making a purposeful decision to tap into this thing that has continuity back to the Stone Age, back to the Pleistocene. Having this thread that connects country and folk music today to our oldest expressions of sound is really empowering because it makes those genres sit on a continuum and an arc of history that’s able to be seen. So it’s not just us trapped in the experience of the post-industrial South. Our effort to make honky-tonk and 1940s shuffle country more approachable is the exact same effort I’m trying to make by putting the oldest stringed instrument in front of people while playing a fiddle tune from the American South. It might seem incongruent but the sentiment is the same. These threads to the pre-commercialized version of the music we’re playing are important to not let die because they’re truly our most potent tools of resistance.
The album release show for “All Bad” is tonight at George’s Majestic Lounge in Fayetteville. Tickets are available here.