Sarah Shook excels in being many things at once. She’s a tattooed, guitar-wielding badass and an introvert. She’s a critically acclaimed singer/songwriter who doesn’t really give a damn about any of the acclaim, or any of the other trappings of success, for that matter. Her music is usually straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll (albeit with a distinct Southern twang), but she most often gets categorized as “alt-country.” And she’s a relentlessly confessional lyricist who has trouble relating to people when she’s offstage.
“I have to be very protective of my ‘me time,'” Shook says, “especially before a show when there’s about to be an enormous expenditure of emotional, physical, and mental energy. It’s really tough for me to have any sort of pattern post-show. Most of the time I’m up for meeting people and having a drink or two at the venue, but sometimes I got nothing left, and it’s off to the hotel or wherever to recharge.”
Shook is also a songwriter who didn’t want to release an album. Recording her debut, Sidelong, with her ass-kicking backing band the Disarmers, was an arduous process for her, and not because she didn’t believe in her music. In fact, it was just the opposite.
“I didn’t want to release a full-length album and have it be successful,” she says. “And I knew when we were tracking Sidelong that that was exactly what we were doing.”
Her hesitation came from a general suspicion and instinctive dislike of potentially being a public figure, and also from a fear of the unknown. She’s managed to reconcile both of those issues since then, to an extent.
“By the time we recorded Years (the band’s 2018 follow-up) we had signed with Bloodshot Records, and begun an aggressive touring schedule,” she says, “so there were a lot more known quantities to work with. But I will always loathe fame and celebrity culture. It’s dehumanizing and vapid. But it’s possible to feel that way and still learn how to navigate that world.”
Thank God she pushed on through, though, because her two albums with the Disarmers are just as visceral, honest, and refreshing as her opinions. Shook writes directly from her life and from her heart, and she’s just as skilled at taking herself to task for her bad behavior as she is in chronicling the heartbreaking ups and downs of relationships.
You want examples? Well, she is merciless with herself on the scathing self-indictment called “Fuck Up,” from Sidelong:
“It’s hard to wake up in the mornin’ when I just crawled into bed,” she drawls on the honky-tonk-ready head-nodder. “With bad memories and alcohol swimming in my head/ My mama used to tell me to buck up/ I guess I’m just too much of a fuck up.”
And she takes on a broken relationship, in stark terms, on “Over You,” a wistful, catchy rocker from Years: “I don’t wanna cry again ’cause I’m too tired/ I’ve had more than enough/ You can’t tell me that this is love.”
It can be risky to bare one’s life in one’s music, but Shook has little patience for anything but naked truth in her songwriting.
“People need to be more honest in their art,” she says. “Don’t write about feeling depressed if you don’t have depression. Don’t write about surface-level achievements if you’re a total wreck internally. Be brutally honest with yourself — nothing better sparks a desire for growth and change.”
Of course, it also helps that Shook has a first-rate band to back her songs, giving toughness and grit to the material even on the ballads. The Disarmers (guitarist Eric Peterson, pedal-steel player Phil Sullivan, bassist Aaron Oliva, and drummer Kevin McClain) have an intuitive knack for framing Shook’s plain-spoken vocals and propulsive rhythm guitar, and there are a couple of good reasons for that.
“These dudes are my family,” Shook says. “We look out for each other, we tease each other, we tell terrible jokes, but we also have some pretty intense conversations about our personal dreams and visions for our respective futures. Typically when I write a song and it’s all there — the lyrics, melody, chord progression, and a loose arrangement — I take it to the boys and we start throwing ideas around for intros, outros, where the solos should be and over what chords. Everyone’s voice is heard, and opinion is valid.”
It’s a winning formula, for sure, one that not only won them a contract with Bloodshot but also garnered the band rave reviews from Rolling Stone (which named Shook one of their July 2016 “Ten New Country Artists You Need to Know”) and PopMatters (which wrote that Years is “a compact, straight to the heart record … a new country classic, plain and simple”). As you might have guessed, however, that praise doesn’t matter much to Shook.
“I run our Instagram account, so I have to keep up with that stuff just enough to post about it,” she says. “But do I care? I mean it’s great for the band and that’s cool and all, but I really just don’t give a damn. We make music we’re excited about and proud of. When you can be there for a complete stranger who is really going through some tough stuff just through your music and words, that’s what means something to me. To help someone feel less alone in their struggles; how could even the most glowing review eclipse that?”