To say that Sarah Shook doesn’t mince words would be an understatement of epic proportions. So maybe it’s best to just let her lyrics get the point across. Take a line from her song “New Ways to Fail,” in which Shook delivers the perfect kiss-off to a partner with regressive ideas of what constitutes womanhood.
“It seems my way of livin’ don’t live up to your standards/ if you had your way I’d be some proper kind of lady/ Well the door is over there if I may speak with perfect candor/ You’re welcome to walk through it any old time that you fancy.”
Like all of her songs, “New Ways to Fail,” from Sarah Shook and the Disarmers’ sophomore studio album Years (out April 6 on Bloodshot Records), could be autobiographical. It’s not hard to see the tough-talking Shook putting someone in their place. But there’s also vulnerability in the Disarmers’ songs about the lonely-hearted and downtrodden. And in classic country music fashion, Shook finds strength in the struggle.
Shook says country music’s role as music for the impoverished is what first drew her to the genre.
“One of the main reasons I make this kind of music is country music has always been sort of the banner of poor folk,” Shook tells Wide Open Country. “As someone who grew up in a one income household –my mom chose to forego a career and homeschool me and my two sisters–we didn’t have a lot of money growing up. There was a lot of struggle and I think that’s a key component for anyone who wants to be making this kind of music. I think understanding struggle and conflict, especially where poverty is concerned, is crucial.”
Packed with a whiskey-shooting swagger and stories of desperation, heartbreak and hangovers, Years is somehow even more commanding that 2017’s critically acclaimed Sidelong.
“Good as Gold,” the first single from the album, sets the tone, addressing a partner’s empty threats of leaving with a cool brush off. “I’m worn out from worry,” Shook sings. “Not worried over you”
Like the recent release from fellow southern badass Ashley McBryde, with Years, Sarah Shook and the Disarmers offer an important alternative to the tales of red Solo cups and bonfire parties that represent much of mainstream country radio. These are songs that are striking in their unabashed realness. From the weariness of “Over You” (“I don’t want to cry again because I’m too tired/ I’ve had more than enough/ You can’t tell me that this is love”) to the stone-faced acceptance of the title track (“There was a time that you were kind to me but, baby, it’s been years”), Sarah Shook and the Disarmers are doing their part to put the hurt back in country.
But it’s not all sadness. In the barn-burning “Damned If I Do, Damned If I Don’t” Shook is “Honky Tonk Man”- era Johnny Horton (or Dwight Yoakam) pleading to be let back in after a night of debauchery.
“Oh baby, it’s gettin’ light outside, let me in,” Shook sings.
Shook says the unshakable spirit that comes through in her songs is due in part to her upbringing.
“You learn to be tough and you learn to be resilient and resourceful. I think my personal experience and upbringing benefited me in a lot of ways,” Shook says. “I feel like it’s really easy to kind of look at your life and feel like a victim of circumstance and feel like you don’t have any control and it’s a bummer. But I think it’s definitely preferable to look at your situation and improve the things that you can and the things you can’t really do anything about you just accept.”
On “The Bottle Never Lets Me Down,” Shook gives a nod to another artist who knew something about mining his own life for inspiration: Merle Haggard.
“The Bottle Never Lets Me Down” obviously is autobiographical [laughs] and certainly based on very heartfelt sentiment,” Shook says. “As adults, all of us have exes and all of us have been through the frustration and disappointment that comes with having disagreements and arguments, especially when you’re involved with someone who’s jealous and insecure it makes for a lot of problems and it makes for a lot of issues.”
Shook addresses our current cultural climate with “What It Takes,” which Shook says was written out of frustration with a former partner “getting upset over absolutely asinine things.”
“I was just like ‘look, there’s so much going on in the world right now and in our country specifically. There are so many more urgent and pressing matters and we have to reserve our energy so that energy expenditure can be put toward the right things and put towards causes that are actually worth our time and attention,'” Shook says.
A born rule-breaker, Shook’s rebellious spirit extends beyond her songs. She bucks the competitive nature of the music industry in favor of supporting fellow women artists, many of whom aren’t given the same attention and airplay as their male counterparts. (She’s quick to shout out Bloodshot Records label mate Ruby Boots’ recently-released album Don’t Talk About It.)
“Our society and the music industry is competitive by nature. It’s not collaborative. I think we can absolutely make our own rules,” Shook says. “It’s not hurting my career any to be like ‘hey, listen to this woman who just put out this album and is blowing up and more power to her.’ I think sticking together and promoting each other and encouraging each other behind the scenes and publicly — I think that’s a really important thing. I think it’s going to change the times.”