Sarah Shook’s voice has a way of grabbing you by the earlobes and making you listen. Her low and lonesome alto conveys hungover weariness and heartbreak, but also a dogged drive to keep on keeping on.
“That’s a very apt description of myself — tired, but resilient,” says Shook.
When Sarah Shook and her band, the Disarmers, emerged from the North Carolina Country music scene with their acclaimed debut album “Sidelong,” it was easy to imagine that Shook had been born with Waylon Jennings playing on the radio and country in her soul. The truth is, she was born into a strict Christian Fundamentalist family that didn’t let her listen to non-secular music. Of course, you can’t become a rebel without something to rebel against.
Shook’s gateway into music wasn’t Hank Williams, but Belle and Sebastian and The Decemberists. “I was 17 and I got my first job and my first car and at that point there wasn’t a whole lot mom and dad could do to prevent me from listening to music,” says Shook. “My co-workers at my first job were sort of horrified to learn that I hadn’t been listening to anything except worship music and classical. I had no idea who was popular at the time."
Soon after her introduction to indie-pop music, Shook discovered her ex-boyfriend’s country music collection. “The first country song I heard was Johnny Cash’s rendition of ‘Long Black Veil,’” explains Shook. “It was so amazing because I had already been writing songs that were country, but I just didn't know that they were because I didn’t have the terms; I hadn’t listened to country music before.”
Toss in her voracious appetite for punk bands like Sex Pistols, The Germs, Stiff Little Fingers, and X-Ray Spex, and it starts to become clear how Shook developed her raw and honest country sound. Her unflinching songs about ruined relationships ensnare you with great pop melodies, but also a punk authenticity that is the antithesis of the pop country coming out of Nashville.
The Disarmers' second album, “Years” was released last year and has garnered a lot of deserved praise. “There is always an element of intensity to putting out your sophomore effort,” says Shook. “We were all pretty much hell-bent and determined to make an album that was as good, if not better, than ‘Sidelong,’ and I think we achieved it.”
Shook worked hard to hone her voice for "Years” and, as boozy as her music sounds, even gave up drinking for the duration of recording the album. “I just wanted to have more vocal control and be more present.”
Almost the entire album focuses on her painful break-up with her longtime partner. What is unique is that Shook isn’t always the victim — a lot of the time she is the one doing the hurting.“I don’t really shy away from things,” says Shook. “I feel like being very transparent and open is important. I also feel like the subject matter is obviously relatable because, if you’re an adult, you have an ex and you’ve been through a break-up and that’s a very universal thing, something that we all go through.”
The songs may be about bad relationships, but Shook’s songs are full of sharp wit, and the Disarmers, led by Eric Petersen on guitar and Phil Sullivan on pedal steel, carry the songs along with plenty of shuffle, swing and swagger.
As a genre, country music isn’t known for its diverse representation. Shook, who is pansexual, is an active advocate for the LGBTQ community, and believes her place in country music gives her a responsibility to speak out.
“I’m not the only one out here doing it,” says Shook. “It’s always good to run into folks that are doing the good work and playing the shows and kicking ass. I definitely feel like there is a responsibility because we are a largely marginalized and underrepresented group to just be like, ‘Hey, we’re out here and we’re very much like you. We’re not freaks and we’re not weirdos, we’re normal people living our lives, working like dogs.”