See if the following three sets of statements shake you. 1) Sarah Shook is arguably one of Country/Americana music’s biggest current stars; she was born in the not-quite southern stronghold of Rochester, NY. 2) Shook was homeschooled and grew up in a fundamentalist Christian family where, among other things, music was severely restricted; she is an atheist, identifies as bisexual, is politically active supporting LGBT and civil rights causes, and taught herself piano and guitar beginning when she was 9 years old. 3) With the release of critically acclaimed albums in both 2017 and 2018, Shook has suddenly become an “overnight success”; now 33, she has been in a band for almost 9 years, and playing music for over 13. Sure, maybe Shook’s a study in contradictions, but there’s no paradox between writing biting, revelatory songs and fronting a ferocious twang/punk band. That, she now does with tremendous consistency.
Sarah Shook and that brash band, The Disarmers, are headquartered in Chapel Hill, N.C. and made their first album, “Sidelong,” in 2015. But it wasn’t until its re-release in 2017 with Chicago’s decidedly non-Country label, Bloodshot Records, that “Sidelong” began to gain widespread attention. Personally, upon my very first listen it totally knocked me on my ass, right from the jangly opening guitar chords and for the full 38 minutes to follow. This was a genre-changing album, unlike what anyone else was doing, with Shook’s distinctively expressive vocals at its center, a voice described by one critic as “walking the line between vulnerable and menacing, strong and uneasy, country classic but with contemporary, earthy tension.” More captivating contradictions.
Like me, reviewers could scarcely contain their zeal for Shook and “Sidelong.” Rolling Stone wrote of her as, “Honest to a fault and as foul-mouthed as a drunken sailor, she’s a nonconforming spitfire who’s proud of not fitting in with mainstream country music” while Folio noted that the album “Oozes traditional country elegance spiked with feral, almost frightening grit, and the instrumental chops of The Disarmers are downright staggering – old-school Nashville grace mixed with frenetic backwoods fury.” The Missoula Independent said it “Sounds like Tammy Wynette fronting the Ramones if they were talented hillbillies with moonshine breath”…She Shreds magazine observed “Her songs may draw on classic country themes but her perspective is unmistakably grounded in the present”…and Louder Than War simply stated, “Sarah Shook & The Disarmers are the best thing to emerge from country music in the last ten years and “Sidelong” is the best album released, in any genre, this year.” I could go on, and I could go back to try to assess “moonshine breath,” but I guess you get the idea.
Then came this year’s 2018 follow-up entitled “Years.” Without going through another series of quotes, suffice to say that I’ve found this album on year-end “Best Of” lists by Rolling Stone, Stereogum, Esquire, Pop Matters, The Chicago Tribune, and too many others to mention, and it was just named Album Of The Year by the estimable Saving Country Music. So, I’ll just give the journal of Roots music No Depression the only word. “This ain’t no country for hipsters or posers. It’s real, raw, mean-and-evil-bad-and-nasty bidness¹ that makes an ass-kickin’ sound mighty fine.” I don’t think I can really improve upon that.²
The songs on both of these stellar albums detail a lot of emotional anguish as well as a whole lot of drinking; of “Sidelong”’s 12 tracks, a full 9 cover booze and bars, liquor and lies, and widespread whiskey woes, while another succinctly sums up her sense of despair with the chorus lyric “I guess I’m just too much of a f*ck up.” The tune featured here, ‘Heal Me,’ begins with the snarling line “There’s a hole in my heart ain’t nothin’ here can fill / But I just keep thinkin’ surely the whiskey will,” and proceeds to churn through three marvelous minutes of purely distilled pain with powerfully potent playing. It’s like sado-masochism in a song.
As the new year begins Shook & band will be touring hard, playing 23 dates in 30 days beginning in mid-January (I’ll be seeing them at Brooklyn’s Knitting Factory near the end of that stint), and one must wonder if in 2019 she can come close to replicating the incredible successes she’s found in the prior two years. Even if it should happen, though, I still don’t imagine her as becoming too celebratory; To her growing audience’s benefit, Sarah Shook seems like someone who might always be more comfortable crying in her beer than popping champagne.
²Well, just one more..here’s Rolling Stone‘s quote on “Years”: “For anyone who felt overwhelmed and tired by the flood of terrible things in 2018 “Years” was a raised fist in the air to keep on going no matter what.”