Sarah Shook and the Disarmers’ debut album Sidelong (released 4/28/17 on Bloodshot) is turbulent and energetic perfect for the country music fan who wishes the recent outlaw renaissance featured some figures a little less soft than Jamey Johnson or Sturgill Simpson.
Bars, alcohol, rocky relationships or some combination thereof feature on every track except “No Name,” which Shook wrote after reading a Cormac McCarthy novel. Shook seemed proud to say that’s the only song not based on her personal experience despite the insanity that transpires in some of the songs.
There are plenty of lines on Sidelong that convey pain just as well as they do comedy, but one from “Misery Without Company” manages to stand out: “For now the only thing keeping my chin up is this bottle.” Like most great lines in classic country music, it takes on two meanings and both are pretty grim.
The “Solitary Confinement” and “Dwight Yoakam” capture tumultuous moments from Shook’s love life and “Heal Me” is essentially an anguished scream. The title track stands out for being pensive and painfully relatable even to those who rarely drink. The lighter moments can be hard to distinguish, but “Fuck Up” is oddly inspiring.
During our conversation, Shook offered views on political discourse that seemed surprisingly measured coming from the woman behind the best fusion of punk and country I’ve heard in recent years. But her dark sense of humor shined through at other times, especially when she essentially described losing custody of a bar after a failed relationship.
First up, because this is a unique story, how did you decide to finally record this album?
It took some convincing. We were playing shows in the region, Chapel Hill, Durham, Raleigh, which is kinda what my old band did. I was just in it for the party aspect of it. Just being able to go out, play shows, get trashed, have fun and meet people. My guitarist Eric Peterson send the group a message that if we’re just going to be a regional band that doesn’t have merch, doesn’t have a record out, that’s not really going places then I need to know that. That’s fine, but I need to know that so I can adjust my expectations. It was like having cold water thrown on you. It was so unexpected for me. Just realizing that we had potential and we could go places. At the time, the chief producer over at Manifold Recording, Ian Schreier, had been pursuing us to make a full length album and I dropped the ball on that a few times. After reading Eric’s message, I jumped into action and got in touch with Ian and set up a time.
Well, I’m glad you did.
Thank you. I’m not an ambitious person and I don’t really have a lot of interest in fame and so having that drive to succeed was just never very appealing to me. It took some reflection and some time to change my mindset, and I still think the whole idea of celebrity is awful. But I’m seeing things more from the perspective that I have a band of really talented musicians who believe in me and believe in my songwriting and understanding that I have a responsibility to them. It’s not just about what I want or don’t want. It’s about giving them a platform to do what they do and taking care of them.
You might not be interested in the fame but you do seem tremendously interested in the music. Why do country and punk work together so well in your opinion?
I think a big part of that was growing up poor. I have two sisters and we all had the same upbringing but went in different directions. My older sister decided to go to college and get a double masters in English. My younger sister is in the navy and is stationed in Spain right now. And I never wanted to go to college. I knew that it wasn’t the path for me, mostly because I have a pretty big problem with authority. I felt like anything I wanted to learn about I could teach myself. So I’ve maintained this lifestyle where I don’t have a lot of debt or huge bills to pay. I don’t need to be making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, I just need to be making enough to provide a safe place and loving environment for my son when I have him. I think that being poor or even just understanding what it’s like to be poor for a time is something that’s crucial when people are making country music and punk rock because that’s part of the idea behind it. It’s this idea of being downtrodden and disenfranchised and not having the same opportunities that other people do based on class.
Based on some things you’ve said and some posts on social media, you’re pretty open about your politics and from one strong liberal deeply involved in the country music scene to another, that’s pretty awesome to see. How do some of your North Carolina honky tonk going fans take it?
I think that a lot of people don’t want to be open about their politics if they’re more progressive minded, especially if they’re making country music. It’s traditionally a more conservative genre but I feel like being transparent and being open about things is important. I think that there’s a way to convey your thoughts and feelings and world view in a fashion that’s not combative but in a way that’s educational and informative. I’m not running around trying to make enemies or draw lines but I do that there’s a deep need for a lot of change in our society and I don’t think you get that by yelling about it but by educating people and having relationships and conversations with people others might think it’s odd for you to be talking to. But I think as a society a lot of our failings are simply a result not knowing how to communicate.
I just have to ask, how did that quiver in your voice become a part of your sound?
I don’t recall which song it was but it was pretty early on. I had a band for a little over three years called Sarah Shook and the Devil and we were playing a show one night and I was really, really feeling the lyrics and it just kind of happened. It was startling. It was not planned. But then it started popping up here and there written into my songs. As my songwriting evolved it became a pretty integral part of a lot of my songs. I don’t think it’s in every song but it’s in quite a few of them.
One of the most brutal lines I’ve ever heard in a song comes from a track called Dwight Yoakam where you’re singing about a girl who left you for someone else and one of his big selling points was he doesn’t walk around like he’s broken.
Yeah, that’s a heavy one. The brutal part to me is this woman didn’t leave me for Dwight Yoakam. She left me for someone she think sings like Dwight Yoakam. It’s not even Dwight Yoakam it’s just some guy at the bar. I wrote that song toward the end of a relationship and it was a really emotional songwriting session. I’m not disciplined writer. I just walk around and live my life and collect experiences and when my subconscious aligns I sit down and write a song. Dwight Yoakam is the only song I’ve ever written that I cried the entire time writing it. I was glad to be done when I was finished.
The repetition — “I’m drinking water tonight because I drank all the whiskey this morning” — that lingers heavy because it really feels like it’s coming from someone a little buzzed and very much in shock.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the feeling of getting day drunk and then being too drunk to leave your house to get more alcohol, but you just have to hang around your house and drink water and be awake for that hangover as it comes on. Especially in the context of that song, talking about a relationship that just ended, the singer has this violent reaction to that they’ve been left by their lover and can’t cope and gets drunk. And then the day goes on. The world keeps moving and you’re just sitting on your porch sobering up.
Then you define “Solitary Confinement” in one of the funniest and darkest imaginable ways. That is getting so incredibly wasted in a certain bar so that you cannot go and bother someone you had just broken up with.
(Laughter) True story, man. I live in Pittsboro, North Carolina, which is growing at an alarming and dismaying speed, but at the time that I wrote that it was still a relatively small town, I think the population was about two or three thousand. In this small town, there’s literally one good bar to go to. When you’re in a relationship with someone and a big part of your relationship is socializing at that specific bar, when that relationship dissolves it’s like who gets the bar? If I go there, I know who I’m going to see and I’m going to have to talk to people about what happened. So the idea of abdicating this bar out of a healthy respect for your ex and finding someplace you know beyond a shadow of a doubt you’re not going to run into them
You have a song called “Fuck Up.” Was that supposed to be a lament or a rallying cry because by the end of it I’m celebrating the fuck up in me.
That’s exactly what it’s intended to do. It’s not necessarily resigned, but definitely making an observation and owning up to the fact that that’s what you are. And there’s a little hint of jubilation in knowing that I’m not alone. There are hordes of us out there running around every day.
The title track is a little different because for the most part on this album you’re going headlong down this self-destructive path but this is one where you take a pause and really think about something before jumping into it.
“Sidelong” I wrote toward the end of a failing relationship and the stranger in the song represents this notion of leaving what’s comfortable even it’s unhealthy. This idea of leaving your comfort zone and taking a chance. Kind of stepping into the unknown but you want to feel confident that you’re making the right decision but still at the same time you want to set boundaries and qualifiers for yourself as you’re considering these options. The way that song turned out it’s kind of weary but also hopeful and it’s a little bit more vulnerable I think than the other songs. It definitely is coming from a place of admitting you don’t have all the answers and you might not be making the right decision.
Check out more with Trevor Christian and his pulse on the Americana scene on Country Pocket on WUSB which airs at 6pm Mondays on WUSB 90.1 Stony Brook