A 'Female, Bisexual, Vegan, Civil Rights Activist' Leads A Southern Country Band

Jun 29, 2017

Sarah Shook & the Disarmers
Credit Don Oneil / Don O'Neil Photography

A woman in her early 30's embracing honky-tonk? A music genre that peaked decades ago? Sarah Shook has answered the query many times.

"I had a very strange upbringing as far a music goes," explained Shook via phone from her North Carolina home. "I was certainly not exposed to a lot of the pop music that was popular in my age group, then and now."

She credits an ex-boyfriend with a killer retro record collection that opened her world to old-school traditional country music.

"All the greats were in there," said Shook. "Wanda Jackson, Merle Haggard, Hank Sr. And I just kind of fell in love with it."

Funny she mentioned Jackson, as she shares a sound and phrasing reminiscent of the rockabilly legend, who she characterized as a personal hero.

"I had the pleasure of seeing her a couple years back in Chapel Hill. I believe she was about 77 at the time. Her performance was so powerful and real, the energy in the room was incredible," said Shook.

"Sidelong" is the latest release from Sarah Shook & the Disarmers. With the exception of the final track, it's an album the spits no-nonsense pain alongside punky honky-tonk. If not for updated production values, the songs sound as if they could have come out of the 1950's. Shook said the songwriting was cathartic.

"I think that's why I started writing songs in the first place," said Shook. "I needed some kind of creative outlet, and my folks happened to have a very out of tune old upright piano in the hallway. It just started coming about that that was my means of exorcizing my demons." 

At points during the songs on "Sidelong," Shook will warble, sneer, and laugh, bringing a theatrical element to her phrasing. She said it's as much a reaction to the Nashville "think tank" way of song-writing than her very limited theatrical background.

"I think it takes away some of the personal experiences (think-tank songwriting), certainly like the pain I addressed earlier. These are songs I've written from personal experiences. I've had to live the hard stuff to get the good songs. I think a lot of the emotions coming through vocally is certainly tied into that. They're very personal, very real songs to me," said Shook.

In an interview from 2016, Shook was self-deprecating in describing herself as "a vegan, bi-sexual, atheist, civil-rights activist, female in a country band in the south." Attributes not traditionally associated with country music. But Shook said she's had no trouble being accepted by country music fans or her peers.

"I certainly haven't received any negative backlash from being honest about who I am and what's important to me," said Shook. "I think honesty is the common thread that ties everything together. Being honest with my music and songwriting is just as important as being honest with the world about how I am."