A quick scan of the Internet reveals many takes on the rising career of North Carolina’s Sarah Shook & the Disarmers. Rolling Stone hailed the “nonconforming spitfire” and her combination of “sneering punk-rock autonomy,” “brutal classic country honesty” and “combative” social media presence. (Sample: “I’m a fucking civil rights activist, and I’m a bisexual, and I’m an atheist, and I’m a vegan,’ you know what I mean? That’s a whole lot of non-redneck shit right there.”) The niche trendsetters at roots music journal No Depression, however, tacked right into redneck water, saying Shook sounded “so authentic you can picture her propped up in the doorway of her single-wide, curlers in her hair, ratty bathrobe flapping loose, cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth, half-empty bottle of whiskey clutched tightly to her breast.”
Stereotype-slashing feminist magazine She Shreds, meanwhile, focused on Shook’s role as a mother and avid LGBTQ/trans/safe space activist. And most reviews of her debut album Sidelong, originally put out independently in 2015, before Bloodshot Records rereleased it last week, focused on the hell-raising, no-holds-barred power of songs like “Fuck Up,” “Nothin’ Feels Right But Doin’ Wrong” and “The Nail,” which ooze traditional country elegance spiked with feral, almost frightening grit. On “Misery Without Company,” Shook sounds barely able to convince herself as she growls, “I’m fixin’ to dry out tomorrow/But for now the only thing keeping my chin up is this bottle.” And the instrumental chops of the Disarmers—Eric Peterson (lead guitar), Phil Sullivan (lap steel), John Howie Jr. (drums) and Aaron Oliva (upright bass)—are downright staggering—old-school Nashville grace mixed with frenetic backwoods fury.
“It’s all about the music for us,” Shook tells Folio Weekly. “We want to play with the same level of intensity and emotion to a room of five people as we would to a sold-out crowd.”
Folio Weekly: Sidelong is an old record for you, but a fresh discovery for many new fans. How have these songs, particularly the ones that are so intensely personal, changed for you?
Sarah Shook: I feel as strongly about these songs now as I did two years ago, when we put out Sidelong. The feelings they describe are still very real and palpable and still come through in our performance. But we just recorded our next album, which will be coming out in spring 2018 on Bloodshot, so it’s nice to play stuff off Sidelong while also having new material to work with.
The press about the rerelease of Sidelong is all over the place, some highlighting your personal and political life, others hailing you as the next great outlaw country badass. How do you interpret the attention?
Honestly, it’s pretty exciting. I never intended to pursue this as a career. I love my bandmates dearly, and when they pushed me to be more serious, I listened. As a writer, I do understand that people will be struck by different things—and that each review comes through a different lens based on that writer’s experience.
Do you feel like you belong to the insurgent or outlaw country movement?
We’re definitely doing our own thing. I don’t really listen to much music—creatively, I operate better in silence, which drives my bandmates crazy. If I had my way, I wouldn’t listen to anything. [Laughs.] But I have a lot of respect for artists making waves in this resurgence of traditional country music. Kelsey Waldon is really inspiring to me, Lydia Loveless, Nikki Lane … What we do falls under that umbrella of alt-country or outlaw country, but I don’t care what prefix anyone uses to describe me so long as they make the distinction that we are not pop country.
You have a song called “Dwight Yoakam,” which celebrates one of country’s original independent spirits, even though he wasn’t seen that way in his heyday.
Dwight has always been determined to do things his own way, captaining his own ship in the direction he wants to go. He’s been very careful and strategic to build his career exactly the way he wants to. That attitude and worldview is certainly something I find inspiring as an artist who’s working on building my own career as well. There’s so much music out there, and a lot of people tend to be very ambitious, thinking it’s all about fame and attention. As long as they’re getting eyes on them, they don’t care how it happens. That can make you miss a lot of opportunities to be careful and contemplative about your career.
You consulted your 10-year-old son when Bloodshot approached you about signing to the label and touring more.
I don’t trust the glamour of overnight success; it’s not sustainable. I had a weird foray into family life—I got married when I was 20 and had my son when I was 22. He was 13 months old when I got divorced. So I went from never living on my own to living with my husband to living as a single mom at 23. There are a lot of hard lessons to be learned in such a situation; I worked as many jobs as I could to provide for my kid. He’s an awesome person, and I respect his opinion, so if he had told me that he couldn’t handle me being gone for 150 days a year, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.