Review: Home on the Rage by Nick Shoulders


Official Album Cover

Country music existed long before The Carter Family started making records that got called “country” in the mid-1920s. It existed long before Jimmie Rodgers quit his job as a brakeman, long before Alan Lomax recorded the songs played by the masses and ignored by the mainstream. Country music existed centuries before the technology to record music was invented; there are songs from the time of William the Conqueror that you can still hear played today.

To love country music is to love history. To love history is to love chasing down stray leads, hoping to connect the dots to a puzzle that nobody else you know might realize even exists. One could spend an entire lifetime piecing together figures that interacted for a brief moment in time in ‘50s Bakersfield, or trying to compile a comprehensive list of every musician who ever played alongside the great Bob Wills. This is all to say that, in a genre of music so fixated on the past, it takes someone really special to bring folks’ attention to the present.

Nick Shoulders is one hell of an artist. He’s one hell of a whistler, yodeler, crooner, a songwriter, and a song finder. Home on the Rage (his latest album, released on April 20th) is filled to the brim with the sort of noise-making cultivated from a lifetime of yipping, hollering, and picking in the Ozark Mountains. In YouTube videos that blew up during early quarantine, commenters often compared Shoulders’ rich voice to Slim Whitman. It’s an apt analogy; there’s a timeless quality to the timbre and phrasing of his singing that lends itself beautifully to old songs. Any accomplished yodeller is obligated to try their hand at a Jimmie Rodgers tune. Shoulders does a beautiful job bringing his own style to “Miss the Mississippi and You,” one of Rodgers’ schmaltzier songs. I particularly love Shoulders’ modified take on “Rise When the Rooster Crows,” originally recorded by The Binkley Brother Dixie Clodhoppers (yes, really). In Shoulders’ own words, “homesick Southerner songs are a dime a dozen.” On an album that is critical of the South in a way few country records are, however, covers like these take on a deeper meaning.

“I’d never love a land that didn’t love me back,” sings Shoulders on the title track. That is the central tension on this album. It is a tension that all lovers of country who don’t fit into the gun-toting, confederate flag-waving stereotype wrestle with. It’s a tension that many Americans struggle with. Shoulders sings about the land on which his family has lived for ten generations with love, but also with reproach. He paints pictures of mountains being destroyed by mining companies and of blood-covered cotton fields. For every look backward, there’s a steady gaze looking long and hard at the present. For every word of praise, there’s a word of skepticism as well.
Home on the Rage is Shoulders’ gentlest record to date. In many ways, it makes perfect sense. Over quarantine, Shoulders moved away from the lights and action of the vibrant New Orleans scene back to his boyhood haunts in the Ouachita Mountains. Most songs consist of only what Shoulders can play at one time; vocals, guitar, and maybe a kick drum or harmonica. The trade-in of the full band sound (in fact, only one other musician plays on Home on the Rage) for intimacy is fitting for both the songs and the times. Quiet reflection is more appropriate right now than raucous dance hall stomps. In the end, all of the questioning of history and identity on Home on the Rage, Shoulders never approaches hopelessness. He knows he’ll get to amp these songs up at dance halls in due time.