If you like your classic country with a sharp edge, look no further than Sarah Shook and the Disarmers. The North Carolina five piece came out swinging with their debut album Sidelong, released on Bloodshot Records in April. The band is the brainchild of upstate New York-native Sarah Shook, who started writing songs in her late teens. It wasn’t until early adulthood that she discovered that country music was in her soul. To hear Shook tell it, it all started with a relationship and a good record collection.
“I was dating a guy at the time who had a modest but very quality selection of traditional country artists on vinyl. My introduction was basically everyone you would consider the really great standards. Hank Sr., Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline and even some more obscure folks like Melvin Endsley,” Shook tells Wide Open Country. “I fell in love with it.”
Shook moved from New York to North Carolina, where she formed country band Sarah Shook and the Devil. After the Devil dissolved in 2013, Shook regrouped with guitarist Eric Peterson, John Howie Jr. on drums, Aaron Oliva on upright bass and Phil Sullivan on pedal steel. Together they formed the Disarmers, a hard driving outlaw country band that combines tear-in-your-beer honky tonk with the raucous spirit of punk music.
It’s a far cry from what Shook was exposed to growing up in a strict, religious household. But she says her upbringing helped her to develop a creative voice.
“I think maybe being raised in sort of a vacuum in some strange way enabled a different kind of creativity–a more uninfluenced creativity,” Shook says. “We weren’t allowed to listen to any music except for classical music and very traditional praise music type stuff.”
Today, Shook is more comfortable singing hymns of the barroom variety like “Nothin’ Feels Right But Doin’ Wrong,” a rollicking ode to wild living. Her lonesome wail pierces through standout songs like the lovelorn title track.
Shook is the first to admit that as a bisexual, vegan, atheist she’s not your typical country frontwoman. And that’s just fine by her. Shook says it’s important to her to be transparent about her beliefs and who she is. (Last year, she and her activism partner Erika Libero developed, Manifest, a two-night music festival in Chapel Hill, N.C., showcasing bands that have at least one woman member, LGBTQ member or minority member.)
“I want people who are in the LGBTQ community to know that I’m one of you. I’m making this genre of music that is kind of strange for me to be making,” Shook says, laughing. “But I love the music and I think it’s a really good opportunity to bring some different types of people together.”
Shook says she takes pride in being a woman fronting a band in a genre where women are criminally under represented.
“It’s interesting to see the same parallels at work with pop country and even the more traditional revival that’s happening right now,” Shook says. “Margo Price is killing it right now. Nikki Lane’s new record is fantastic. Kelsey Waldon–she’s just mind-blowingly good. It just seems that all of the mainstream publications want to talk about Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson. They’re like the Holy Trinity for the country revival. I certainly don’t have a problem with their music or with them as artists. But it’s frustrating that you have women that are putting out equally quality material and writing really great, brilliant songs and they’re just kind of like an afterthought.”
READ MORE: Where Are the Women on Country Radio?
With a spirit and a voice like Shook’s, there’s little danger of her ever being an afterthought. And you definitely don’t want to be the one standing in her way.
“I just think it’s a really cool thing right now to be a woman who is taking up space and saying ‘This is my stage for tonight,'” Shook says. “‘It doesn’t matter who was up here last night or who’s going to be up here tomorrow night. Tonight is my night and we’re going to go all out.'”
Sounds Like: A pissed off Patsy Cline drinking whiskey with Wanda Jackson.
Required Listening: “Dwight Yoakam,” a brilliant lost-love weeper with a honky tonk wail worthy of its namesake.
Sarah Shook and the Disarmers are currently on tour across the U.S.