Nick Shoulders & The Okay Crawdad Takes Country Music Back to Its Roots


Nick Shoulders wears a white tank top and sits on a couch holding a violin.

Shoulders is a staple in the current “pseudo-new wave” of Americana/country music that’s been a dominant genre for years now. Photo by Nick Futch.

Nick Shoulders doesn't think the stereotypical images of country music are sexy. 

“We’re living in the same world as red scares, endless wars, pandemics, and bank failures that the origins of country music identified with,” said Shoulders, who's from Fayetteville, Arkansas. “The endless wars and the scary stuff that was forming early country music is far more of the reality I inhabit. That’s what I try to channel through in my craft. I’m not doing this because it's Civil War recreation stuff or because it’s mired in an experience that’s really far away. It’s still with us.”

After going viral during the pandemic with a performance of his track, “Snakes and Waterfalls,” Shoulders has become a beloved token of the best the country/Americana genre has to offer. Having now amassed over 3 million views, the video features Shoulders in his true nature: in the middle of the forest, singing (and yodeling) on a tree stump alongside his dog. 

In 2019, Shoulders released his first full-length album Okay, Crawdad after his 2018 EP, Lonely Like Me. And last year, Shoulder released his fourth record, All Bad, a live-recorded, 14-track showcase of Shoulders at his best. The record was released via Gar Hole Records, the label Shoulders founded and co-owns, and is the first album released with his former band, The Okay Crawdad, since their pandemic hiatus. 

Shoulders is a staple in the current “pseudo-new wave” of Americana/country music that’s been a dominant genre for years now. But with the help of platforms like TikTok, certain songs are lassoing in fans whose only prior exposure to country music might be to the sterile, strangely sexualized tunes that dominate the top charts. But with this success, Shoulders grapples with the cultural challenges the genre faces. 

“I see country music being more popular, but I mean just look at Beyoncé’s new work not being played on country stations—case in point,” Shoulders said. “She’s saying that everything you think about this genre is based on a very specific political aim that the ‘White Right’ put forward after the Civil Rights movement to trick you into betraying your class interests so that you would see yourself as separate from this.”

Shoulders is intensely dedicated to honoring the roots of country music, noting the irony of the genre being commodified by what he calls the “White Country Music World” in the later part of the 20th century. 

“I am just one piece in a much broader conversation that is happening between a variety of sources,” Shoulders said. “If I can be one voice in the descendants of the Celtic-Anglo settlers stalk of the south that grew up on dead and gravel roads, who learned to sing from their grandparents, I think there’s a different kind of impact to a different crowd. If it’s not coming from academia or from sources that people on the ‘White Right’ don’t trust, then I am willing to take that risk. That’s what makes country music worth living.”

In 2022, Shoulders toured with fellow Americana darling Sierra Ferrell when the Ukraine war broke out. Shoulders noted how bittersweet the experience was—always loving the live performances, seeing the country, and sharing his music with new audiences. But the rising gas and food prices and being thousands of miles away from his family and community posed new challenges to the standard taxes of tour life.

“It helps to articulate these feelings and to take your grief and rage out, not letting it fester inside,” Shoulders said. “It can be helpful to turn that into something external. But it also requires an amount of sacrifice regarding your privacy and even your autonomy.”

After that tour and in the years since, Shoulders has worked on boundaries regarding his personal life, his craft, his social advocacy, and his sanity. Alongside his music, he’s known for sharing his opinions openly on social media. He provides resources for his fans to learn more about current world conflicts, under-represented histories of America, and the true origins of the genre he honors so deeply.

“I do think we have a responsibility as arts of conscience to respond to this stuff, and I also think we have a responsibility to ourselves to withhold to an extent that keeps us safe. In this century and media climate, it’s a lot different than if I was in 1924 at the dawn of recorded country music. The speed at which we’re asked and compelled to respond to be available to this externalized songwriting process is way different than when this stuff was cut on records.

“There’s a very helpful way to externalize it and create things that can help us all mutually, but there’s this other side where you’re just commodifying your grief and your hurt. There’s no profit margin that can justify losing my core self that is the basis of my songs and my craft. It’s gotten a lot weirder and harder,” Shoulders said.

When creating, Shoulders tries to hold onto his roots as tightly as his guitar strings. 

“The days when I lived out of my van and played on street corners or for tips at bars were vastly more uncomfortable and less rewarding than where I am now,” Shoulders said. “But was I free? Yes. I have to give and take where my values sit in my craft.”

So while on the surface, Shoulders’ work has a levity kindled by his penchant for yodeling and playful tones, his craft is somber. Shoulders possesses a deeply embedded sense of cultural and sonic responsibility that’ll have you stomping your boots, but thinking twice about the ground you dance on.

Ally Hall is the writer and editor of Rocka Magazine, a music publicist, and a freelance writer.

Nick Shoulders & The Okay Crawdad performs April 21 with Maddy Kirgo at The Ark, 316 S. Main St. in Ann Arbor. For details, visit The Ark's website.