Spending Time with Alt Country’s Outlaw, An Interview with Sarah Shook

Spending Time with Alt Country’s Outlaw, An Interview with Sarah Shook

Nov 1, 2017

Advertising doesn’t always work on me but after a few times of seeing Sarah Shook & The Disarmers’ album cover, Sidelong, on Bloodshot Record’s instagram, I was intrigued and decided to check it out. I was getting ready to go play a punk show so country wasn’t even remotely what I was in the mood for but halfway through the first song I was hooked. The Disarmers’ brand of alternative country is nothing but good. Even if you don’t like country music, their outlaw charm is attractive to all kinds of listeners. The Disarmers came through Cincinnati in June and I was able to catch their jaw-dropping show at MOTR as well as meet up with them the next day to conduct an interview with Sarah Shook.

Sarah Shook got her start playing music at a young age. “My parents randomly had this piano in the hallway, so I was about 9 when I started teaching myself piano and wrote my first song… I started playing guitar when I was about 16 but I didn’t start playing shows until I was 21 or 22,” the soft spoken songstress recounts. Her introduction to country music didn’t come until later. Before that, Sarah says “I wasn’t really listening to anything, I have a weird relationship with music.” Sarah had a very sheltered upbringing with extremely religious parents. An ex boyfriend turned her on to country music. “He had a small but really good collection of country greats and it was the first time I had heard anything like it…it stuck.” Her first favorites of the country greats were Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Wanda Jackson, Melvin Endsley, Patsy Cline and others.

Sarah says her favorite time to write songs is after dark. You definitely get that vibe from her songs as most of them have a bar setting and heartbreak as a backdrop. In fact, drinking is a big theme of her music with lyrics like “I’m fixin’ to dry up tomorrow, but for now the only thing keepin’ my chin up is this bottle,” and “Drinking water tonight ‘cause I drank all the whiskey this morning.” Sarah says her hangover cure is “sleep and lots of water.”

The set The Disarmers played at MOTR was long, in fact the perfect amount of music for their enthusiastic fans. I asked Sarah about the set because they played more songs than what are on Sidelong. They’ve already started playing songs that will be on their new album out in the spring of 2018… something to look forward to.

 

But before Sarah started the Disarmers she was in another country band called Sarah Shook and the Devil. She says the biggest change between The Devil and The Disarmers is “we added drums. Sarah Shook and The Devil was more old school [country]. It instantly got a little bit darker and harder [with drums]…After signing with Bloodshot one of the things that changed the most was the touring demands.” In the Disarmers, Sarah is joined by Eric Peterson (guitar), John Howie Jr. (drums), Aaron Oliva (upright bass) and Phil Sullivan (pedal steel). They limit their tours to about two weeks at a time so Sarah can get home and spend time with her son. Sarah’s son, Jonah (age 10) apparently only likes about 3 bands. “Most of the time he doesn’t want to listen to anything and just prefers silence but he’s really into the Sex Pistols. That’s one of the few bands I could convince him to listen to.” I asked Sarah if her son had a favorite song of hers and she said, “He’s really kind of reticent about the fact that he listens to my music, he pretends that he doesn’t then every once and awhile he’ll be like, ‘in that one song is the line this or this’?”

Their next album, Years, is out on Bloodshot as well. In the meantime, they’ll be touring a few more times promoting Sidelong. When Sarah is not touring, she bartends a few nights a week at The Cave in Chapel Hill, NC and she hangs out with her son.

As an outlaw country musician, being female is a minority.  “One of the issues with women in music is it’s harder to find time, it’s harder for women to find access to instruments if you’re living at or below the poverty line… There’s a big glaring difference between how many men are not just playing music but are in the music industry and there are certainly women out there holding their own but we are the minority. Whether its outlaw country or any genre, if you’re a woman interested in making music, I’d encourage you to find the time and find a support group of people to push you to follow through.”

I can’t stress enough the quality of The Disarmers. Sarah has a haunting voice with a quiver that gives you the impression that what she’s singing hits home. Her lyrics are relatable for anyone who’s felt the pains of love and likes a good time and a bottle of whiskey. The band adds depth to her outlaw soul, with Bakersfield-esque country vibes and garage band twangs. Sidelong is my vote for album of the year. It is a must listen for any fans of Women in Rock.

Fun fact…. As referenced in “Make it up to Mama,” Sarah Shooks says “I’m gonna make it up to mama with this mother heart tattoo.” She does not have a mother heart tattoo.

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