Sarah Shook & the Disarmers are creating a special brand of country music. It’s raw and unique yet fans of the genre will feel right at home. All of the typical, hard-country adjectives apply: edgy, gritty, dark, whiskey-soaked, restless. But they don’t do the band justice. Shook’s lyrics are plaintive yet direct, mean yet forgiving. There’s love and hurt and anger and even some unbridled joy. Her voice is a guiding light, and her band is remarkable. You can hear their long, hard road together.
There are plenty of comparisons to draw from – other folks that are working the boundaries of country music, but, goddamn, if I didn’t hear the woman’s voice that I needed to hear when I listened to Sarah Shook. It’s not delicate or particularly sweet but strong and authentic. It’s singular. So, I was beyond excited when she agreed to answer a few questions for us about her life and her music. I also included a few ways to hear and support her music below.
Where are you from? When did you move to the South? Why?
I started out in Rochester, NY, moved around a ton and finally landed in Garner, NC, in July of 2005. That place is a hellhole. My parents were moving there, and I wasn’t earning enough back home to support myself so my hands were kinda tied. Moving to North Carolina was just about the last thing I wanted to do. A brief marriage, a baby, and a legal separation (followed by a divorce) later, I found myself settling into the slow pace and progressive community of Pittsboro, located in Chatham County. I’ve moved more times than I can count, and this is the first place I’ve lived where I’ve been able to put down roots for myself. The first home I’ve been able to choose for myself. I live in a little trailer in the middle of the woods, and I’ll live here til the day I die. It’s heaven. And I got to pick it out.
Tell me about the music you make.
I front a “country” band. In quotes because the Disarmers bend genres quite a bit, but at the end of the day, iTunes, Spotify, Bandcamp, etc. want to put you in a nicely wrapped little genre box. My songs can be pretty wretched and ragged, and I’m not afraid to delve into some super depressing, nihilistic shit if that’s where the muse is taking me. But no matter what, no matter how dark it gets, the more nuanced theme, by far, is resilience. Maybe even jubilance at times. Fighting the good fight. Not backing down from a challenge or being afraid to face an oppressor.
I’m not a disciplined writer at all. I live my life, day to day, just like everybody does. And every once in a little while a song will just fill me and I just let it spill out onto the paper, lyrics, melody, chord progressions, everything. There it is. I’m like a translator for some unknown entity. Or maybe it’s my subconscious. I go back and forth on that a bit.
Does living in the South impact your music? How?
I’m a vegan, bisexual, atheist, civil rights activist, female in a country band in the south. So yes. There is definitely fallout due to our location. Things might go differently if we were located in, say, New York. Or Chicago. We’re playing a series of anti-HB2 concerts. And sometimes I sit there and look at the “unlikes” on our Facebook page after posting something pro-LGBTQ+ community and I’m like oh the fuck well! Who cares! When my efforts are geared towards fostering the most wildly diverse audience possible, it’s impossible to be bummed out by hateful people saying “nevermind” to my band and my music. Bye Felicia.
How do your family and job affect your musicmaking?
I just work two nights a week at the Cave, the oldest bar in Chapel Hill. I have my (super smart completely amazing) nine-year-old son three days a week, and my partner and drummer, John Howie Jr., has his nine-year-old son opposite days and every other weekend. It can make booking shows challenging for sure. Right now we’re doing weekend runs whenever we can and trying to figure out when and how we’re going to make a more traditional tour happen.
Writing songs has become more of a challenge with a houseful in a tiny space; I have to be alone to write, and that just doesn’t happen often these days. That said, it makes writing all the more cathartic. There isn’t pressure to write at this point in time, I already have songs picked out for the next full length album.
What are your hopes for your music? Where will you go and what will you do next?
I gotta take care of my dudes, ya know? I’ll take us as far as I possibly can. We have dates lined up in Atlanta, Knoxville, New Haven, Providence, and we’re still booking. Just confirmed our first 2017 date! We’re going to promote the Sidelong album and, with any luck, start recording at Manifold Recording Studio in the fall/winter with a spring 2017 release.
Will you be going on tour? Collaborations?
Still working out details for a full tour next year! I won’t say I’m opposed to collaborations, but my focus right now is branding the band and getting us out there as a crew. I’ve been turning down almost every solo show I’ve been offered for the same reason.
Sat, Jan 21, Anderson, SC – Carolina Bauernhaus Ales, 8pm, Free
Sun, Jan 22, Charlotte, NC – Thirsty Beaver Saloon, 5pm, Free
Who do you listen to? Why?
I’m kind of a freak, I don’t listen to music unless I’m working at the Cave. My brain just works better in quiet environments, and I love the serenity of silence. When I’m working, I listen to Campdogzz, a badass band out of Chicago fronted by Jess Price. Her voice is devastatingly nuanced and super duper special. I just got turned on to the Coathangers, and I’ve loved Shannon & the Clams for awhile now. I LOVE the Adverts. I spent a long time unaware of how women and non binary and trans folks are sorely, blatantly underrepresented in the music industry. Now I mostly listen to bands that include them.
Who inspires you? Why?
John Lydon. John Lydon is my fucking spirit animal. He is smart as fuck and you can’t find a more honest person willing to shove the truth in your face, like it or not. The Sex Pistols changed my life.
Also, Frida Kahlo. I was trying to think of something positive I could do to protest the racist, sexist, homophobic rhetoric the GOP is propagating, so I got a giant tattoo of her face on my left arm. A strong, independent, creative, intelligent, bisexual, Mexican woman. I love her. I love her so much. Her perseverance through a lifetime of excruciating pain, her unwillingness to let her pain rule her . . . God. Frida Kahlo is God.
Any favorite Southern women?
My activism partner, Erika Libero. Her honesty, enthusiasm for life, willingness to be vulnerable at any moment, and presence has, on more than one occasion, brought me to tears. Literally. She is inspiring as all get out.
Any other Southern women or non-binary or trans Southerners making music that we should know about?
Oh man, where to begin! Erika’s band, Henbrain, are uber talented. Shirlette Ammons is crushing it right now!! Wahya’s!! Fucking love them. Bad Friends out of Durham. Pie Face Girls and See Gulls from Raleigh. S.E. Ward from Chapel Hill plays amazing, hear-a-pin-drop shows and just started a band. I’m going to see them in July. Shit is dope. Elsa Cross down in Texas, Emily Musolino shreds like a boss, Steph Stewart’s brand new band, Blue Cactus. Megan Jean and the Klay Family Band! I know I’m forgetting folks. But damn. We got a lot of diverse talent in the area and I’m grateful and humbled to be a part of this scene.