Midwest Americana family-driven band Shannon Clark and the Sugar’s new album This Old World (out Sept. 8th) paints a sharp, heartfelt portrait of modern American life told through country, soulful folk & roots, and heartland rock with the blend of blood harmonies. It balances that hard line of being radio-friendly and emotionally resonant with its catchy hooks and relatable lyrics that aren’t afraid to tackle tough subjects. The band will be touring heavily this year. Having shared the stage with the likes of Tim McGraw in 2022, you can find them in 2023 at places like Fort Loramie’s Country Concert on July 8 alongside Luke Bryan, Jelly Roll, Dierks Bentley, and more.
The band consists of married couple Shannon (vocals, guitar) and Brittany Clark (percussion), their daughter Navie (vocals, piano), and their cousin through marriage Joey Howard (guitar, vocals). The band's origins (minus Navie) started when they were teens playing in rock bands, even playing notable events like Warped Tour. The band split after Joey moved away to South Carolina. Years later he returned to their hometown of Greenville, OH, where they rekindled their friendship during the quarantine era and wrote this new album.
The title track “This Old World” kicks the album off with an empathetic and reflexive look at who we are as a nation while tackling the huge issues of gender identity, anxiety, depression, war, and gun violence. Its gently lolling country verses move into the beautiful pop of a Tom Petty or Sheryl Crow heartland rock chorus, with hints of Tracy Chapman’s bluesy-soul and her sense of compassion. Its tragically simple message tells us to look for the silver lining no matter how dire the circumstances.
As people, nations, and families seem to be divided more now than ever, "Like the Stars” is a song about stubbornness and the discomfort of waiting for people to change. “I was like the dark and you were like the stars,” Shannon sings as a metaphor for two things that exist together yet separately. It meshes the early alt-rock jangle guitar of R.E.M. with Joey and Navie’s Fleetwood Mac-inspired vocal harmonies.
A bright gem on the record is “Cool Waters,” a song of youthful exuberance, big crushes, adventurous first loves, and maybe even skinny dipping in South Carolina in September with someone you just met. The heavy Hammond B3 organ, swinging guitar licks, and its syrupy romantic chorus give “Cool Waters” the same summer love vibes as Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl.”
Drenched in Deep South grit and soul, “Good Woman” gives the solution to all of life’s ills, despite whatever personal struggles you're dealing with. This swampy, Louisiana blues rambler finds Cactus Moser (Wynonna Judd’s Husband) contributing the odd but interesting Tom Waits-esqe percussion fills.
“Everyone has a good person in their life to get through the hard times,” says Shannon. “For me, that’s my wife. She’s my best friend. She encourages me in music and in our family. My problems are typically my own doing, and she’s always there to give me perspective and keep me on the good path.”
“The Way I Am” is about the desire to be a religious person while struggling to connect the dots. What does it mean to ask hard questions when you were brought up in a particular faith? Its echoey guitar and heart-on-your-sleeve lyrics are reminiscent of Emmylou Harris’ “Wrecking Ball” and thematically in line with “God’s Song” by Randy Newman.
“Change Everything” is a piano ballad of regret. It deals with hometowns and time passing in a classic Springsteen way, but with a modern production near Bon Iver. Staying in that Springsteen feel, “Never Grow Old” was a promise that Shannon and Brittany made to each other when they first started dating. Its gentle finger-picked guitar mingles with the satisfyingly verbose verses and mellow, romantic chorus.
The beautifully stripped-down waltz “Thistle” deals with abuse and shows the effects of a bad man taking too much from a good woman. The old adage “hurt people hurt people” is apt for the protagonist of this song. A thistle is a pretty flower, but it might puncture you with its spikes if you touch it. It’s a song for lost souls on the edge.
The Shannon/Navie duet “Jackie” is a love song about Brittany’s aunt who lost her fight against cancer. Sung from the perspective of her husband coming to terms with their life together, her slow descent, and finding closure after her death. Brittany’s brushed drums, the funereal cello, soft bells, and the spectral backing vocals give the song a noble dignity for the lifecycle of this love story.
Shannon and Brittany lost an infant daughter to a rare heart condition. During the aftermath, they found it hard to deal with the grief and a house filled with reminders of their pain. Their dark country song “Burn Down” could easily be taken as a relationship song if you didn’t know the truth. It's a song for anyone who’s wanted to burn everything down and start over from scratch. Its eerie and intimate sonic palette is laid down through a capo’d acoustic guitar. The track adds a ghostly space echo machine feel, and we’re brought back to reality by Navie harmonizing with her father’s vocals. “This song helps relieve a burden I felt as a father. What if I did this or that? You just wonder if you could’ve done something different. This song’s about a man who’s losing his grasp on reality."
The death of their infant daughter in 2009 made writing music feel like a distraction from the pain they were going through. Years later, when Navie turned 14 and showed an interest in singing, Shannon began writing again—using music as an emotional tool to reach some semblance of catharsis. They began writing and recording singles like “Carry Me” which was the first song Shannon started writing for this new project with his wife and daughter. The music video for “Carry Me” garnered attention from multiple film festivals, even winning best music video award from The Peak City International Film Festival.
They brought Grammy-winning producer Mark Howard (Bob Dylan, U2) to their hometown to record their 2021 album Marks on the Wall. The title track, about not forsaking your family, convinced Mark to take on the project. Shannon had four songs ready, and Mark wanted 15.
Shannon got to writing songs that function as an autobiography of his family, like marking the height on a wall as children grow. The group rented an old farmhouse for the month where they worked out each song in a circle as a band, embracing the room tone and leaving imperfections to underline the honesty of the recording and lyrics.
“Mark helped us get out of our comfort zone,” says Shannon. “We were still trying to find our voices as artists. We didn’t think about genre or where we were headed. We found this great swampy Americana vibe. For this next record, I wanted to find a producer to help me hone that voice.”
While in Nashville to play a show, Shannon booked time with producer Justin Weaver (The Judds, The Chicks) and engineer Jeremy Bernstein at Welcome to 1979 studio. They cut a version of “Jackie” in one day. That version didn’t make the record, but Shannon was inspired and booked another trip where they recorded six songs in three days. They came down a third time and finished up the songs that became This Old World.
Weaver also contributed guitar, vocals, LinnDrum, accordion and banjo. Then, they brought in ringers to pad out the album: keys from Billy Justineau (Luke Combs, Brothers Osborne, Eric Church), drums from Cactus Moser (Wynona Judd, Cass McCombs, Engelbert Humperdinck), Cello and bass from Michael G. Ronstadt (nephew of Linda Ronstadt), bass from Chris Autry (Josh Turner), and keys from Phil Towns (Brent Cobb, Anderson East). The record was then mixed by Mitch Furr (Keith Urban, Devin Dawson) and mastered by Adam Grover (Willie Nelson, Zach Bryan, Dolly Parton).
This Old World is a record about the importance of family and having a support network. The down-home notion of being kind to one another is brought to bear through Shannon Clark and the Sugar’s modern take on American roots music. It’s comfort food in that it’s easy to digest, but you notice that it’s also good for your soul and mental well-being when you look at the ingredients. They’ll continue to tour heavily and are already working on the next album.
“Working with Mark on the last record was the first time I felt validated as an artist,“ says Shannon. “We were readjusting how we look at the world throughout the pandemic. Now, we matured in our presentation of the material with Justin on this new record. We’re tighter as writers and playing as a band. This is more who we really are musically and as a family. This record is a new spiritual path for us.”