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Nick Shoulders: A Healthy Dose of Southern Pride

Music | March 6th, 2023

By Sabrina Hornung

sabrina@hpr1.com

Upon discovering the music of Arkansas-based musician Nick Shoulders, there are a couple of things that come to mind. At first listen it’s no secret that his sound is a celebration of past music traditions; his croon, his whistle, unmistakable yodel and musicality are steeped in folk traditions older than human recollection.

In fact, he attributes his yodel to growing up mimicking birds in the woods.

Along with his musicality he is an accomplished visual artist. His work provides a surreal folk art-inspired landscape that has graced murals, gig posters, labels for area breweries, and art for his albums. In addition to that, he’s part owner of a small label called Garhole Records based out of Fayetteville Arkansas.

Needless to say, he has a lot on his plate. So how does he make it all work?

“That’s been one of the biggest things to balance as the pace and the size of the tour is increasing so much. Prior to the pandemic, we were just playing little moldy honky tonks and then the “Western as F*ck” video and “Gems on VHS” picked us up. It wasn't long before we were getting a lot of attention but I was in the void of the pandemic and the lockdowns. So once we've gotten back into touring, the pace has really been exponential and way more than I think we've been prepared for mostly.” Shoulders said.

He added, “Especially me being a mobile homebody who enjoyed the downtime, getting to draw and be a nature nerd. But that has been a balancing act as of this last year, getting myself time to be able to create visually. Because it is such a component of our merch and our album art where my songs have a visual universe attached to them. It has been one of the big issues this year, I would say, getting that downtime in place. But this winter has been great to really lean back into that.”

He attributes inspiration behind his visual art to old time cartoons, surrealism, and folk art. His phone is filled with forgotten murals and layers of hand-painted lettering and signs that inform his work.

“I'm a real observer of people's processes in application of lettering in line. And, if you were to look into Ozark nature and see the palette of the moss and water and the color of the gravel, I'm just synthesizing something that I've been looking at and seeing for my entire existence, up against this very chaotic, very dense world we live in. I want it to feel like it's drawing from something that is old and very much rooted in place – and be unabashedly modern and weird,” said Shoulders.

One of the most compelling takeaways from his music and imagery is his strong sense of identity, which could be described as a dose of healthy southern pride. In fact he created a multi-paneled illustration confronting the “image problem” as well as an appropriation of southernness in contemporary country music.

“I think that speaks to the idea of what is a southerner? If your definition doesn't include black and indigenous people, the descendants of the enslaved and those that were expelled on the Trail of Tears and otherwise, that's an incomplete understanding of what southernerness is and what it represents.”

He went on to say, “I think that sort of presentation of history isn't a gimmick, it's not a sales pitch. This is haggling with and reinterpreting but interrogating a history that is taught as propaganda and this is part of country music's true mission: people from rural backgrounds being able to be proud of where they're from. Being in relationship with landscape and having that sort of pride in place and also not just pride but understanding of context and history and how we got here – that's true pride, not blind allegiance.”

Growing up, there was plenty of music in the Shoulders’ household. His father was a whistler, and he learned it from his father. His grandfather on his mother’s side recorded gospel music and was involved with recording in Little Rock in the 80s. He even inherited a 200-year-old violin from one of his grandfathers.

There was always some element of music within his family, but it wasn’t really a priority. Instrument-wise, Shoulders started his career as a drummer and has played in various punk and metal bands throughout Arkansas as an act of rebellion and to remove himself from the old-time southern music traditions that he had grown up with.

“That definitely inspired me to just be in the scariest, loudest bands possible, before I hit the road at 24 and moved into my van. I was 100% red state rocker / small town punk culture enthusiast, but punk culture, and what makes up the ethos didn't exist here because it's just so isolated.”

“I would say that a lot of finding those roots was leaving here and realizing that folks from outside of this cultural experience resonated with the whistling, or my grandparents’ music, or found it novel and entertaining and wanted to hear more. This stuff that I was embarrassed about could maybe propel me to a greater cultural conversation that I'm trying to understand because there's a lot of shame, being subjected to the kind of attitudes that people have to the South in general, but to Arkansas specifically.”

He went on to say, “So when I really did realize that people were hearing something beautiful in that cultural experience, I wanted to reconnect with it. And so going back and listening to my grandparents’ music and sitting with my grandma and singing and putting a real ear to those old recordings and not just interpreting them and doing my own thing; and that, I would say, that leaving the state is honestly what made me reevaluate where I was from, and what kind of value that had.”

IF YOU GO

Better Western Tour

Nick Shoulders and the Okay Crawdad

with Special Guest Nick Studer

Saturday, April 15, 8pm

Fargo Brewing Company




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