- Interview by
- Willie Jackson
When “Rich Men North of Richmond” by Oliver Anthony went viral last month, Republicans seized on lyrics that echoed right-wing talking points. For many, it confirmed country music’s reputation as irredeemably white, conservative, and Christian. But the reality — both about Anthony’s song and country music in general — is more complex.
Nick Shoulders is a contemporary singer-songwriter from the Ozarks region in Arkansas, and he’s spent his career countering the myth that country is right-wing, both in his music and by drawing attention to the genre’s sometimes radical history. As he points out, although it was born in the shadow of slavery and the trail of tears, country music was a working-class tradition that reflected — and often challenged — an oppressive reality.
The heart of the country tradition, Shoulders says, is an “unwillingness to back down from expressions of joy and camaraderie,” and an “insistence on selfless love for one another.”
Today, country music has a reputation of being white and conservative. But that’s a connection you regularly dispute, both in your music and in your activism. So, what’s your take on country music today?
Whenever this comes up, my first question is to ask what’s meant by country music. Is it just rural music, from anywhere between Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine? And if that’s so, how do you explain its use of southern dialect and southern drawl?
It’s not to say that Southerners own country music or have an especially high stake in it. But it’s important to trace the cultural origin of country music back to the shadow of the Civil War, enslavement, the Trail of Tears, and so on. In the United States and American South, country music is an artifact of an arduous and violent history. And it’s a reaction against that violence that tries to inject joy into daily life.
It’s also wrong to see country music as essentially an exclusively white, conservative, pro-capitalist sort of propaganda. The instrumentation, structure, and rhythm in country music are not from a strictly European source. What makes country music unique is that it reflects a diversity of cultural origins that fed into a new, hybridized experience and culture in America.
How did country music come to have a conservative reputation?
It started as a reaction to the civil rights movement. If you look at older country music, it essentially reflected the lives of everyday people. It wasn’t anything like the conservative outlook that later defined country and western. For all intents and purposes, Jimmy Rogers was a white blues singer. Older country music was also very critical of the dominant culture and power structures. You can hear that in songs like “No Depression in Heaven” and “Single Girl, Married Girl,” [by the Carter Family] and “Be Kind to a Man When He’s Down” [originally recorded by Fiddlin’ John Carson]. You can find similar themes in the whole litany of early American country music.
Then, following the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, the Right saw an opportunity to co-opt what was then called hillbilly music, which they rebranded as “country and western.” As part of this, country and western music latched on to Confederate politics, the Southern accent, and the Southern music that went into older country music.
Since then, country music has been weaponized as part of a culture war, as a tool that keeps people poor and angry. The Right maintains power by preying on sustained grievances and sustained suffering, and country music is one vehicle they use for that. It’s one of the most insidious, weird takeovers that’s happened in any corner of American culture because rhythmically, country music is straight-up West African. And it also has all the hallmarks of Native American influence and has roots in Gaelic culture, which was conquered and colonized by other European nations.
In the beginning, country music wasn’t all-white — one of the first people to play on the Grand Ole Opry was DeFord Bailey, a black country and blues singer. That kind of history often gets forgotten.
Exactly. People think of yodeling and whistling as techniques used in white music. But listen to the Mississippi Sheiks, Lottie Kimbrough, or frickin’ Tommy Johnson — those are black yodelers and whistlers. And there were many people who played early country music to non-white audiences. Robert Johnson was reportedly an avid yodeler who could sing all the Jimmy Rogers songs.
It also highlights a more general problem with how we think about genres. I mean, if Chuck Berry were white, his songs would have been called country songs.
You nailed it. And remember, as a commodified product, country music has only existed for a hundred years. Because it started in a segregated society, the record industry imposed labels and barriers that obscured its plural sources. They distinguished between “race” and “hillbilly records,” even though they covered some of the same material and used many of the same techniques, rhythm structures, and singing styles.
Turning back to today, right-wing commentators and politicians have tried to claim “Rich Men North of Richmond” as part of their agenda. And then there are artists like Morgan Wallen who are more explicitly conservative. Do you see them as an example of what you’re talking about?
It’s an example of the political project I was talking about at work. The Right has preyed on grievance politics and culture wars to starve people of prosperity for half a century. You can see this especially in “Rich Men North of Richmond,” which reflects some of the intense and justifiable anger you can find in the most neglected corners of the internal colony, Middle America. The artist [Oliver Anthony] even came forward to say he wrote the song about Republicans. It’s a song about the people who were trying to present him as one of them and it shows how insidious and intense the far right is when it attempts to co-opt country music and rural grievances. His pushback has created a fissure in the soundtrack of empire they rely upon.
As for guys like Morgan Wallen and Jason Aldean, as much as they’re angry, they represent a kind of bully mentality. In that way, they’re also victims of propaganda that has intensely soured them toward compassion. I feel bad for them that they are conned into reinforcing power instead of questioning it.
What do you think about the idea of “authentic” country music? Do you ever get any kickback because your music doesn’t always fit the country mold?
I want to think that what we’re doing is part of what people call real country music. I would like to think that considering I’m embodying a singing tradition that I’ve pulled from my family. They homesteaded on the Arkansas-Louisiana border in 1849, and they had been continuing this practice probably since they emigrated from Scotland and Ireland.
The fact that these traditions were preserved by rurality is one thing. But that rurality only hung on because of the Civil War, because of enslavement, and because of the removal of native Southerners. So the idea that country music is authentic because it’s connected to the country is a real problem for me because you have to be a private landowner for that to make any sense. It’s as though you need to have inherited your great-great-grandparent’s ranch. But I was divorced from that, like many people are. I have roots back there, but the ghost hollow — the haunted piece of woods I grew up on — we lost that to the financial crisis of 2008.
Every tangible connection through my family, back to the land, has been severed at one point or another. And that’s also true of many people who resonate with this music. I may have been raised in the woods where I gained all these skills. But I was taken from that and put in the position that in order to have economic and physical security, I had to live in town. So, growing up, I had access to perspectives given and gained from both the rural South and small-town South. After all, Arkansas’s biggest city is only 150,000 people.
But my most country friends don’t sing country music. They work demanding jobs, they raise families, and they’re hostage to an economic system that belittles them. That’s many people’s reality and it’s also part of the history of country music. Jimmy Rogers wasn’t born in the most remote hollow on the planet — he was a railroad worker in Meridian, Mississippi.
So I think that when people fetishize “authentic,” rural country music, they’re really fetishizing private landownership. Real country, to me, comes out of the shadow cast by empire and the violence of conquest and slavery, and it asks hard questions. That was lost when Southern music became country and western.
Country and western was soundtrack music for Westerns — Southern music became a cowboy commercial. That’s why, for a lot of us, this isn’t a theatrical role. It’s a really painful reclamation of identity rooted in suffering. It’s like being in the shadow of a specific, terrifying, bad thing and being like, “No, we’re not gonna repeat these mistakes.” For me, that’s what real country is.
So before you moved to town, you grew up in the Ozarks — could you tell me more about how that region and the people who live there inform your music?
I was always lucky to have access to intact green space in woods, hollows, and fields. I’m a nature nerd, and I called myself a “woodlem” growing up. So it’s a part of my music.
The history of the Ozarks runs very deep, and it’s very secluded. It’s still one of the poorest regions in the whole country. The lack of options and the need to improvise and love what I was from is what made the Ozarks integral to my music.
Now the Ozarks aren’t true mountains — they’re not tall. But the valleys are deep. And I learned growing up — as many people in the Ozarks region did — to pitch my voice with a kind of comfort, volume, and projection that I could only gain by singing to this big, empty, rocky hillside and hearing my voice bounce back at me.
That, and you have the need to communicate across long distances, which means a lot of volume and a lot of projection. So for example, my little neighbors lived across the field and in the next hollow, and to get in touch, we’d project a sound like “Oh!”
I also feel that the landscape I was lucky to grow up in was integral to my skill set and the physical expression of my music. My first yodels and use of diaphragm control came from owl calls. So, I think that when people try to connect country music to the country, I think what they’re really aiming at is music that is a product of the landscape and that integrates with the landscape. And what’s beautiful about country music is it’s become a vehicle for everybody’s country, what everybody wants to love and cherish about themselves and where they come from.
That’s always my caveat when I get into the history. Like, yeah, obviously, there’s Confederate aspects that we need to ask some hard questions about. But the beautiful secondary product is that people everywhere gain a soundtrack to pride about and love of landscape. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all. It’s something we all deserve.
How are you navigating Nashville and the country music industry in general? And where do you think that you fit in that world?
Country music — and music in general — has only been recorded and sold for about a hundred years. The magic we create has only been bottled for a really short time. But sometimes, we get out of here, and it feels like we’re creating this thing that can’t be replicated or captured every night. It’s so life-sustaining and wonderful. It draws the energy out of us and makes us available to enjoy ourselves here.
But the industry part of it is the grind. Being a vehicle for alcohol and ticket sales really can get to you. With where we’re coming from — I was homeless in my vehicle for a few years, and we’ve all been part of the street corner circuit — it’s not like we thought we’d ever be promised a spot in amongst the Nashville Mount Rushmore. We’re more comfortable being just another rock in the hill.
So I want to think of our music as a Trojan horse to alter the industry. We have to subvert the industry from within and ask some pretty hard questions, so that it’s safer for people who come after us.
One of the things I really like about your music and songwriting is that your sense of optimism in the face of all that is going on. That can be a tricky thing to do sometimes. How do you do it?
What Marx called alienation, we call the blues. We’re trapped in this constant cycle of working just to keep the lights on, which is often experienced as loneliness and separation. In that context, creating joy can be an act of resistance and a way to question and realign ourselves. If you can’t bring joy into this and uplift yourself meaningfully enough to resist, then they win. If you can’t laugh at yourself and you can’t laugh at these circumstances, they win.
And you know, I grew up hearing old, weird Southern singing. So I think that what we try to represent is something you’ve always heard in country music. It’s this incredible, mournful in-touchness with the harshness of reality. It’s an inability and unwillingness to back down from expressions of joy and camaraderie, and an insistence on selfless love for one another.
We try to engineer that in the community, with our live shows, and with what we put out in the world. So, it really means the world to hear that it shows and that it’s working, and that people care. I wouldn’t sing the songs the way I do if I didn’t care about the people I was singing them to. If I genuinely just hated folks and thought they were irredeemable, I would write very different songs.