Ain’t Ya Listenin’? On the Campaign Trail with Nick Shoulders

The first time I listened to Nick Shoulders’ album All Bad, shortly after it was released last fall, I knew the Arkansas singer-songwriter was running for president. I just didn’t know if he knew it. To be fair, at first glance, it’s an unlikely proposition. Only 35 years old, Shoulders barely meets the constitutional age requirement for the office. He’s not a career politician, or a celebrity, or obscenely wealthy. Hell, it’s been almost 60 years since we had a president who could yodel, and that one, Lyndon Johnson, only warbled to his dog. But in an America that is through the looking glass, it would be foolish to rule out anything. Even a Crawdad Rebellion.

Now, yes, some weed had been smoked when the idea of a Shoulders candidacy occurred to me, but I can assure you the drug’s contribution was minimal. The truth is, I worked in U.S. politics for 20 years, on three successful presidential campaigns, a few losing ones, and have otherwise studied, taught, or written about the subject since I was a teenager. Over time, I learned how to spot candidates adept at channeling the pleading voice of those invisible to the political elites, and who, in doing so, manage to jolt and rattle the system. And while most of these candidates eventually flame out—the system tends to clap back—some go on to change the course of history.

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On Nick Shoulders, I needed a second opinion. So I called the only person I trust, my attorney Don Coyote. He reads America’s shifting social and cultural undercurrents the way sailors do the tide.

“You filthy liar,” he growled to begin our conversation. “You under sold this man’s political appeal. When you called hyperventilating about him last week, I assumed he was just another naïve young idealist chasing fairy tales. But this is something else entirely. He’s fluent in the language of rural mountain folk and suburban moms alike—and just about everyone in between. He’s surfing on a very big wave. Why weren’t you more clear on this?”

“I wanted to see if you were bright enough to catch it.”

“Catch it? How could anyone miss it? It’s an astonishing record. There’s a three-song sequence at the end—’Appreciate’cha,’ ‘Won’t Fence Us In’ and ‘Whooped If You Will’—that is like a call to fucking arms. It’s a 21-gun salute. Bang, bang, bang. Each song rings and echoes and reverberates louder than the last.” He paused, and then asked in a hushed tone, “Do you know what a White Bellbird is?”

“Some new street drug I should know about?” I asked hopefully.

“The loudest bird in the world. One-hundred and twenty-five decibels, cousin. Hearing its call is like being on the tarmac while a jet engine is at full tilt. Nick Shoulders might be the White Bellbird of our time, the howl America needs right now. As your attorney, I advise you to join his campaign at once.”

“He’s not actually running, you know.”

“Then we should beat a path to his doorstep and make the case ourselves. He’ll see he has no choice. We’ll present him hard data on what the electorate wants, what it is desperately craving. I will begin preparing a research dossier.”

I shuddered at the mention of the word. “Exactly what kind of research?” I ask. My attorney has lost faith in the tools traditionally used to measure public opinion. He eschews polling and focus groups in favor of immersion. He likes to walk a mile in the target audience’s shoes. Left to his devices, he’ll punch its clock, attend its rituals, marry its women. It’s wildly effective, but it doesn’t always end well.

“Leave it all to me,” he replied. “He’s playing in San Francisco in ten days. As your attorney I advise you to do some research of your own. We’ll rendezvous by the Bay and sort it all out with him.”

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As I dove deeper into Shoulders’ music, the more plausible his candidacy seemed. For starters, he’s not a lone voice in the wilderness. He’s part of a dazzling rebirth of traditional country and folk music that is rippling across the landscape, finding booming audiences, and being driven by a large cohort of artists mostly in their 20s and 30s, few of whom were alive the last time this music was a prominent part of the cultural landscape, but each with their own authentic connection to the art.

In Shoulders’ case, he had to rediscover the music, going on a hero’s journey that is, well, the stuff of presidential narrative. Raised near the Ouachita national forest in Western Arkansas, he roamed and fished the wild spaces around him, and made good use of a free-range childhood. He has said that his singing style is the “result of imitating owls and communicating across fields and woods with my neighbors from a very young age, and my whistles and the vibrato in my voice are inherited from family who passed their ancestors’ voices down to each other for countless generations before that.”

As a teenager, he rebelled against his musical inheritance and the rural South, and left both behind to become a drummer in a series of metal and hard core bands. But as he traveled around the country, he discovered that audiences responded to the whistling and other music traditions from home. It helped him realize that he could acknowledge the region’s painful legacy while still embracing its wonders—and make music rich in tradition but placed squarely, honestly, in the present.

All Bad is Shoulders’ fourth album, and his growth as a music creator and lyricist-philosopher are felt across the record. On the title track, Shoulders lets us in on his origin story—and the outlook it ultimately produced. “Amongst the cypress and quartz I roamed//I learned to wince at the church bell’s toll//Preferred katydids and thunder’s roll//It never felt all bad.” He describes the rage and misery he felt, alludes to scrapes with the law, serious health problems, and environmental dread we all are living with—but still concludes, “It ain’t all bad.”

That’s the promise of country music of course. It shows up during our hardest moments—the Great Depression, the late ‘60s, now—and not only gives expression to the torment, alienation, fear, and absurdities of the era, but reminds us that defiance and resilience and good humor can co-exist alongside all the uncertainty.

Shoulders’ music does both, in an accessible and engaging way. The music feels familiar. The scenes do too. Cowboys and coal miners are holy avatars in the genre, and for good reason, but far more people grew up the way Shoulders did—fishing, catching snakes, eating microwave dinners in front of a TV. His commentary is equally relatable. Americans have always loathed inconvenient truths, but when confronted with them forcefully enough, we sometimes address them. The stranglehold of our modern, choose-your-own-information-source media environment has made it easier than ever to ignore the unsettling realities around us, but Shoulders lights a torch for us to plainly see.

Perhaps what’s most intriguing about Shoulders though is that he dares to challenge the prevailing cynicism of our time by exhibiting reassurance, optimism, and a wild and fierce joy. The moment I realized this I called my attorney to tell him the good news.

“Nick Shoulders shares another important attribute with successful presidential candidates,” I explained as soon as he picked up the phone. “Hope.”

“No shit, cuz,” he shot back. “I’ve been on tour the past few days, hitting his campaign rallies all across the Southwest. The crowds have been absolutely frenzied. He killed in Arizona. We can easily take that state. How many Electoral votes do they have?”

“You mean his shows? Where he and his band play music?”

“They’re more like the tent revivals of yore. Instead of religion though, he’s spreading folk wisdom and good time music. And yes, if you insist on using that banal word, hope. He doesn’t just perform songs, cousin. He’s gives Ted Talks between them, riffing on empire and slavery and oppression and the Trail of Tears. He’s absolutely mesmerizing. In San Diego he told the crowd ’We can commit an act of resistance by simply refusing to despair, and even more potent of one if we allow ourselves the space to grieve and rejuvenate.’ I was so inspired I placed an order of campaign buttons.”

“Don’t wear yourself out,” I told him. “San Francisco is in three days.”

“I’ve never felt more energized in my life. I am Method studying the American electorate. I am in their heads. And let me tell you, it is drugged out in there, cousin. Weed and ‘shrooms are legal now. Uppers, downers, there’s prescriptions for those. The entire economy is being juiced by Adderall. Suburban moms are micro-dosing in between yoga classes. We should have started our research a long time ago. I’m in line now for my Ozempic refill.”

“The diabetes drug?” I asked.

“Diabetes? Here in L.A. it is a weight loss dogma. It’s all the rage. We pop them like candy. I took my pharmacist to Nick’s rally last night. A nice woman from Columbus, Ohio. She said, ‘Now this is the kind of country music I like.’

“Please don’t burnout before we get started,” I said.

“Ask not for whom the White Bellbird howls, my friend. He howls for thee!”

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Most people will hear “Won’t Fence Us in” as the album’s anthem, a stump speech put into song. And I won’t say those people are wrong. Shoulders turns the old Roy Rogers tune upside down, into a protest song. “There once was land endless land//Under starry skies above//But they fenced it in//Now its interstates and interchanges//Monocrop and truckstops//‘Cause they fenced it in.”

He asks, “Is it freedom ringing in your ear or just a death rattle?” and “Does grievance make you strong? Or is it what makes you feeble?” And it is here he gives the battle cry of every rebellion in American history, the song of the oppressed, the chant of every social movement that grows too loud to ignore: “Ain’t ya listening?”

But if “Won’t Fence Us In” is the album’s manifesto, then “Appreicate’cha” is its trojan horse. I played it for a friend who called it “a bop.” It’s true, the song will move a statue to dance. The opening lyrics make you think it’s about a polite soul acknowledging others for their kindness. “If you ever lent me your coat, I appreciate’cha. If you ever kept me afloat, I appreciate’cha.”

Yet, as the song goes on, Shoulders broadens out the acknowledgements to larger swaths of people, and as he enumerates their contributions to a better world, his own worldview is laid bare. “Oh workers of the world I appreciate’cha. For your poorly compensated toil I appreciate’cha.”

The song is wildly subversive, in small ways and large ones alike. For starters, it’s rare to hear an American man display an awareness of his relative privilege and shortcomings, let alone one who joyously praises others for the grace they’ve showed him along the way. And in a culture that incentivizes outrage, scapegoating, and vitriol, simply recognizing others for their worth is an act of rebellion.

When he sings, “If you’re doing your damn best I appreciate’cha. If every new day is a test I appreciate’cha,” he reminds me of a bygone time in our politics when acknowledging the plight was others was considered leadership. Shoulders is proof that an America still exists where people would take being seen, and understood, over a new government program or tax break, an America where people are exhausted from being pitted against some other group that’s just as bad off as them.

Shoulders pushes the ideas ever further, provocatively so, and conjures language that would make Victor Hugo weep. “If it ain’t just, it ain’t a law worth obeying for any of y’all//Turn us loose and let it fall.”

The song is so dangerous, and Shoulders is such a skilled and clever songwriter, that you don’t know if he’s winking when he concludes, “If you don’t call the cops on me, I appreciate’cha.”

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On the day of the show, my attorney and I hung around the back door of the August Hall in San Francisco, waiting for our chance to meet the would-be candidate. The area around the venue looked more like a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie than a city that once buzzed with idealism and the promise of a more progressive future.

Today it embodies the urgent need for a new model of American governance—proof of exactly what Shoulders is saying in his music. The city boasts 84 billionaires, and more people living on the street and dying of drug overdoses than any other American metro area. It reminds me of the game Monopoly I played as a kid. The contest ended when one person controlled all the money and property, and all the other participants were bankrupt. It’s the same outcome of unregulated capitalism, an outcome we seem to be hurtling towards at warp speed.

Just then Shoulders and his band—the Okay Crawdad—pulled up and parked among the broken glass and shrapnel. Shoulders bounded out of the van with a grin. “So you’re the boys that’s been looking for me?”

“It’s the White Bellbird,” my attorney said in astonishment. Shoulders looked at me quizzically.

“We think you should run for president,” I said.

Shoulders laughed and spoke enthusiastically without pausing while he and the band began unloading their equipment.

“It’s cool to see people recognizing that this community is intensely needed and intensely present. We banded together to create this sound and ethos out of desperation and the need to just survive. As for politics, the legacy of slavery and the shadow of the Trail of Tears is the venom that underpins so much of what makes America volatile and incompatible with itself. If our music is a vehicle for understanding this disconnect in the country, to hopefully teach people what this cultural experience actually is, and what imbalance and slavery and violence did to create it, then it’s liberating too, because that means I have more in common with people who aren’t aristocrats, like that person up the holler with the Confederate flag, like that suburban Trump guy, like the person in New York who might be the most gung-ho Democratic organizer of all time. All of us have in common that we are not part of the aristocratic class. And who knows what happens when we all realize that. The lens shouldn’t be left and right, it should be top and bottom.”

He paused at the venue’s door, smiling, and with his mouthbow in one hand, he stuck his other out to shake each of ours. “You boys enjoy the show. Thank you for getting what we’re trying to do.”

As he disappeared and the door closed behind him, my companion whispered to me. “As your attorney, I advise you to drop everything you are doing and get this man on the ballot in all 50 states. You heard him, right? He’s running. Tell me you heard him.”

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