Americana artist Karen Shook joins me for tacos (Episode 962)

This episode finds me outside El Vado in McHenry (929 Front St.) for a chat over tacos with Americana singer-songwriter Karen Shook. As I mentioned early in the interview, her sound is more “Nashville” than “McHenry” (though what, really, is a McHenry sound?).

I enjoyed my chat with her, and hope you’ll visit her website ( to learn more and get one of her gigs on your calendar.

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This right here is Car Con Carne.

I’m James VanOsdol, and Car Con Carne is a Q101 podcast.

I’m recording on a Saturday morning.

I need to do more things like this.

This is such a peaceful way and fun way to start my day.

Much less stressful than ditching out after work and then racing to parts unknown.

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I watched some of your podcasts and I thought, can we say anything we want?


Okay, good.

So I’m like, this is not on.

Yeah, we’re not on the radio.

We’re not on the radio.

Fuck it.

Yeah, we’re adults.

We can speak like adults speak.

That’s fine.

And I guess we’re starting.

I guess this, here we go.

Well, it’s slow roll, slow roll.

Once the fuck it comes in, that’s my cue to begin up.

Car Con Carne recording in McHenry outside El Vado at 929 Front Street.

It is a block away from Siren Records, where I recorded a few episodes.

To my right, if you’re watching this on Facebook or YouTube, it is Karen Shook.

She is a singer-songwriter, someone who I felt the need to feed today, I felt the need to buy tacos for, because I heard your song, Broken Hungry, and I just felt-

I’m always hungry, thank you.

I just felt like this would be the right thing to do.

This would be my community helping.

I appreciate that.

Yes, all right, so Karen Shook is here.

Musically, I mean, the tricky thing about a podcast is we can’t play music.

So people just have to take my word for it and listen.

But musically, I hear Americana, I hear country, I hear soul, I hear blues.

Your sound is more Nashville than McHenry.

It is actually.

And like when people ask me like at my gig last night, like, what do you play?

And like the first word out of my mouth is Americana.

But I was born in Oak Lawn, and then when I was two, we moved to Oklahoma.

So I like to call it soul twang.

Not that Oak Lawn is very soulful.

We went home to a.

In pockets, in pockets.

We went home to an apartment in Blue Island when I was born.

It was a garden apartment deep down, deep down.

So maybe that’s where the soul came from, the depths.

I don’t want you to let the tacos get cold.

I got to you three steak tacos.

I’m like, oh, well.

Can I show these off?

When I was younger, I used to be weird about eating food in front of people.

And I’m like, so what are we eating?

About 1,000 episodes.

Let me in, I’m starving.

About 1,000 episodes, I was weird about eating food in front of people.

And I just got over it.

Oh no, I’m all good now.

Okay, good.

Yeah, all bets are off.

When I started this, I had a partner and he used to edit the audio and he would edit out all the chewing.

I wondered if we were gonna edit.

And once I took the podcast over as just my podcast, it was just too much fucking work.

Can we recognize how this matches my dress right now?

I really appreciate the green and the lime and the avocado.

Yeah, I mean, the tacos really bring the outfit together.

It really ties the outfit together.

It ties the whole room together, really.

Well played.

So you mentioned at your gig last night, it seems like you’re never, forgive the double negative, you’re never not doing a gig, to the point where, how are you even doing this right now?

I feel like you’re always playing somewhere.

I have, well, yeah.

Who’s calling?

That is Sean Mulroney, owner of The Double Door, who I haven’t talked to for a while.

Well, my second ex-husband’s name is Sean.

Oh, different Sean.

All right, Sean, I gotta get back to you.

Miss you.

I went with Sean to The Hives.

No, no, no, it’ll sound weird on the podcast.

Miss you, Sean.

Okay, so speaking of shows, oh, I should open up my tacos too.

You really should.

I got Al Pastor.

I don’t wanna shit on you, but.

Al Pastor, I do like the pineapple.

It does, it does.

Big fan.

I’ll tell you what, sometimes if life is hard and you have some good tacos, it’s like, you know what?

It’s gonna be all right.

It’s gonna be okay.

Tacos are delicious.

And relatively speaking, depending on how you get your tacos, they’re not really that caloric and terrible for you.

If you go with the corn tortilla.

Yeah, corn tortilla, that’s the right move.

All right, so speaking of shows, you’ve got, I wrote a couple down.

I didn’t write them all down, because it’s just too much.

I mean, we can just go to your website to see where you’re playing,

That’s right.


DC Cubs in Huntley on the 17th, DC Cubs in McHenry on the 24th, The Boathouse in Lake Geneva, which sounds lovely on Saturday, the 23rd.

It is lovely.

Mickey Finn’s in Libertyville, a little further south of here on July 7th.

So much going on.

I’m actually at Mickey Finn’s this Sunday.

What day is it?


Well, hopefully I’ll have this edited by then.

We’ll see.

That’s probably why I didn’t write it down.

Mm-hmm, definitely.

So, okay, Oak Lawn to Oklahoma.

When did you first pick up a guitar or pick up an instrument?

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First time I picked up a guitar, I think I was 15.

My dad gave me a guitar for my birthday.

My dad played a guitar, my mom sang, and the church where I was raised.

We went home, we didn’t sleep at the church, but.

So you grew up in a religious family?

Extreme religion, yeah.


How much, sorry, how much does that influence your songwriting?

A lot, because it’s painful and weird.

It really is, like I think, okay, with all due respect to those who choose religion as a path, I think it can be, well, I’m just gonna project that it probably is a good path for some, but for me it was painful.

I’m the second of 11 kids.

My dad didn’t want kids and my mom wanted 12 and so they settled on the 11.

True story, but.

That’s a monster sized family.

So when I was 15 years old, my dad gave me a guitar.

It was around that time that I realized if I don’t play guitar for myself, I will have to depend on another human.

So I really just wanted to sing.

I love singing.

And when I was in high school, very long story short, my really good, closest childhood friend was, she was raped and murdered and it was real intense.

And that was when the guitar that my dad gave me when I was 15, like was my tool for transmuting the pain.

And that was when I really started writing.

And yeah, that was the life changer there.

My mom always kind of pushed me when I was three years old, my mom told me, you can sing, you’re a good singer.

This is what you’re doing.

I think she kind of like knew like, this one’s a little weird.

I’m gonna have to really hone in on this thing.

So she has something to do.

And it worked.

And I really like, I feel it.

Like that, it feeds me.

You said-

Besides the tacos.

You said before we started recording, you’re a non-religious spiritual person.


So I’m guessing that means you have some kind of connection to instruments and communicating that way.

Yeah, for sure.

For sure.

I feel like, I mean, even before I came here, like when I was younger, the religion and the dogma, it was pushed on me, I would say shoved down my throat.

But now, it sounds weird, but before I came here, before I go to my gigs, most of the time, once in a while, I forget, but I will say a prayer and I will ask God for my angels and for the spirits around me to help me to know what songs I should sing, because I know a lot of songs, a lot of songs.

And sometimes I just make up songs on the spot, like I did last night, but I pray that what is meant for me to give to another person, and it’s a symbiosis of this emotion and this feeling, and I pray that it will drop into my heart and my mind.

Because it’s always, it’s always all we, you know, it’s in me all the time.

Like, whatever I need, it’s in me if I trust that it is, but it’s hard sometimes when we get out into the world to remember what to do.

So get scared and get anxious, and I get anxiety and everything, but.

You weren’t anxious about doing this, were you?

Well, I mean, I’m anxious about just waking up and breathing.

You know what I mean?

But no, no, but I always do.

I say that prayer when I was at home.

I was like, angels, help me.

Give me what I should do so we can have a symbiosis of hope and love, because what else are we here for?

It’s freaking hard on earth, man.

That’s all we have left at this point.

It’s fucking hard.

Like, I don’t want to be dramatic.

Well, maybe I do a little bit.

Too late.

But wait, there’s more.

So, talking about that show last night, you just improv’d, you ad-libbed a song.

Is the creative process more structured for you, or is it really just kind of…

There is very little structure.

It just hits when it hits, and you figure out what to do with it?

Yeah, I’ve worked with other people before, where it’s like, okay, we’re going to write a song about the sunshine, and it’s going to be in 4-4, and I’m hoping for these feelings, and that’s cool.

I think we can do that.

I’ve read about other songwriters who feel like you have to yank the song out of the ethers, but for me, I write every day.

I journal.

I write pretty much every day, a lot.

And a lot of times, I’ll go back and read what I wrote, and there’s a continuing theme of…

I wrote a song called Dopamine, and for a while, I kept writing this line.

I kept writing it, and then one day, it was like, bam, and then here’s the melody.

So it’s kind of like magic.

It does feel like magic.

The creative process can feel like magic.


So talking about all these shows you’re doing, we’re in McHenry.

The West suburbs, the South suburbs, the suburbs in general aren’t known for fostering original music scenes.

That’s true.

We are in cover band territory.

Yeah, we gotta pay them bills.

Gotta pay them bills.

Is it harder to break through as your own artist?

Fuck yeah it is, but you know what?

I feel like, okay, like last night, I had not a lot of people, but there was a, I mean, there were a lot of people there, but when I say not a lot of people, there were two tables who were like shouting out, play your originals, cause like they know me.

And I’m like, oh, it makes me feel so good.

And then I played a couple of my songs in a row and the other people are like that, I got more response from my own songs.

And I know it’s because like, I feel that shit, you know?

Like that’s, that’s the core.

And I would say that’s the pain, but it’s like, I think we all have pain.

I think we just want to like work through it.

I think that’s what we’re here for.

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We got to talk about the crowd in France.

At one point, they sent out an emergency to everyone’s phones stating that the decibel level was dangerously high.

You know, a few surprises like singing Randy Orton’s song.

I was like, there were words to this song?

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Among other things, like tacos.

The tacos are kind of delicious.

My friend James, who lives out here, James Cantrell, when I learned that our original destination wasn’t going to work, I’m like, where should we go?

That’s cheap and awesome.

And he said El Vado.

Oh, see, I never, I never knew about El Vado.

I’m going to come here tomorrow in the morning.

It’s kind of great.

It’s super cheap.

Check out this monster size horchata.

And look at this.

Instead of the fish or shrimp, it’s a shrimp.

He looks very happy.

It’s a crustacean of some type.

It is.

Is it lobster?


I wouldn’t ever have a lobster taco.

It really looks joyful.

Yeah, it does.

I wouldn’t have a lobster taco anywhere, but somewhere coastal.

Like, McHenry would not be the place that would go for lobster taco.

Back to your music.

The most recent singles, If I Were Perfect, I’d Be Dead.

I love the woo-woo-woo’s, the background vocals on that.

Thank you.


And those clean guitar sounds, too.

My second ex-husband.

Oh, really?

Well, he did a good job.

He did.

He did.

He did a really good job.

I wouldn’t say that it’s okay to drown your sorrow.

I’ll never know just where to go until I’ve been.

That’s a great line.

Thank you.

It was a rough day.

But that is great.

I’ll never know just where to go until I’ve been.

We all think that.

I love that.

The one to break me, going back to that bluesy and soulfulness that stands out.

And then there’s the full mood swings part 17.

We joined mood swings in progress with part 17.

I’m guessing that Mama Needs Some Strange is a song of empowerment.

After the second ex-husband.

It was figurative.

My own mother was very sad when she heard that song, Mom.

Moms don’t want to hear that stuff, no.

They just don’t.

Sons don’t either, just for the record.

No, no.

I have three sons and they also didn’t enjoy that number.

Sorry, boys.

Yeah, you know, you’re an adult.

At a baby’s bills.

And the mission statement, I’m here.

I’m awkward.

I live the best life I choose.

I love the way the harmonica punctuates that one too.

That’s a cool song.

That guy, wow.

That guy just goes by Philharmonica.

That’s cute.

So good.

It’s hard to catch them vertical a lot, but I got them that night.

Love it.

So we can stream Mood Swings Part 17 in all the streaming places.

Beyond performance, beyond songwriting, you teach music.

Have taught music.

I have taught music and I do.

If people ask me, I’ve taught at Old Town School of Folk Music.

I did Wiggle Worms classes actually last night.

I played the ABCs and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star because I get the vibes.

Yeah, those are sure fire hits.

I’m not joking.

The drunk people love it.

The two year olds are like, hey, what’s up?

That’s my jam.

Because really drunk people behave like small children.


Know your audience.

Well, thinking in terms of being a teacher, what was the best lesson you ever took away as you were coming up or as you continue to come up?

I think it’s about purity and openness.

I think it’s about when I am with a student, which honestly at this point, it’s rare that I teach.

I think the last time I taught, I was teaching vocal lessons to a man who looks like Santa Claus and he’s a wonderful human.

He comes out to my gigs and he sings karaoke because that’s what makes him feel good and he wanted to be a better singer.

So the one thing that he keeps telling me when I see him out is you taught me how to breathe.

It’s weird because on earth, like we all breathe, like we have to breathe to stay alive, right?

But that is the thing.

Like a guy asked me last night, how do you sing for three hours and not lose your voice?

And like, it’s like you’re belting, but it’s not that loud.

And I’m like, it’s just about breathing.

Can we take a breath, James, together?

Can we breathe in our nose?

Imagine that your belly is like a balloon and it’s getting really big.

We’re gonna breathe in the nose.

I live that, I don’t need to imagine that.

You’re like, it actually is a balloon.

It’s a red balloon and it’s floating.

Anyway, that’s what I would tell Chuck, the guy that I was teaching the vocal lessons to.

And he tell, every time I see him, he’s like, that breathing shit.

And I’m like, that’s what it’s about.

Cause we forget about it.

Well, I don’t want to generalize and shit on people.

But I think a lot of times I forget about it because we’re just here and we got to breathe in and out.

But a lot of times it’s shallow.

Or just, you know, but if you actually take a really, really, truly deep breath in your nose, fill up your belly and then all the way out of your mouth.

That’s what I remember when I teach people.

Breathing is important.

When I started doing talk radio, music radio, this wasn’t really relevant, but when I started doing talk radio, I realized like I needed to moderate the way I breathe in and breathe out because I was going five to 10 minutes.


I said, I tell you what.

Tell me.

I got excited.

It was just, you know.

All right.

So it’s nothing but a gig fest for you.

What’s coming up that you really want people to show up for?

You know what?

It’s like, there’s so many things, but what popped into my head is July 20th.

I will be playing on the Woodstock Square, which is just a beautiful space.

So lovely.

And there’s a bar called Wine Stock, and they host events all, oh, hey.

They host events all summer long, and they call it Cast Street Music Series.

And I’m playing there July 20th, and I’m excited about that.

That’s gonna be a good time.

Right in the middle of summer.

Out on the cobblestone.

A lot of times people remember Woodstock because of Groundhog Day.


Groundhog Day, and we’re like, I got you, babe.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch, I got you, babe.

All right, Karen Shook,

We’re also outside El Vado in McHenry.

Perfectly fantastic place for tacos.

If you’re out this way, go here, maybe walk on the river or whatever people do in McHenry.

What do people do in McHenry?

I’m just here for the tacos.

Do they shoot stuff?

What do they do?

Well, I think they do shoot stuff.

Sometimes you got to shoot stuff, whether it’s tequila, what have you.

Has Malort made its way out here?

I tell you what, Malort is very much like Chicago proper.

However, we’re just like, I only had Malort once and I think that it tastes like a combination of fresh grass and dog piss.

Not to be confused with cat piss because that’s a whole other situation.

It is.

With the cicadas, I saw that.

Where was that?


Noon Whistled.

They have two locations.

I was at the one in Lombard.

They’re no longer doing that.

I don’t know the circumstances.

I saw that.

They’re like, we’re done here.

That’s enough because enough people were like, so if you have cicadas, we’re not coming.

I appreciate the novelty.

It was a publicity stunt.

It worked.

I gave them publicity that night, the day I saw it.

It was totally effective.

I tried it.

It didn’t taste buggy.

It just tasted malorty, which is disgusting.

I’ll kill everything.

Yeah, really.

There is something vaguely antiseptic about it.

It was fine.

I appreciate people doing crazy shit.

All right, Karen Shook, I’ll let you finish your tacos.

Thank you for doing this.

We will see you and support you live.

We’ll listen to you online and we’ll keep up with all your things.

Thank you, James.

I appreciate it.

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Author: carconcarne