Sarah Shook & the Disarmers made their first ever stop in Tulsa, Oklahoma at the Mercury Lounge on January 21st, 2019. The Disarmers played an energetic but casual and sometimes informal set in front of a very enthusiastic, sold out crowd. Sarah and the crew played a twenty-one-song set to include most of the tunes from their most recent album “Years” which was released on April 6th, 2018.
The Garner, North Carolina singer/songwriter brought her high lonesome singing style while the Disarmers backed her with that country and punk sound, mixed with the perfect amount of honky tonk twang. Crowd favorites such as “Fuck Up,” “Devil May Care,” “Damned If I Do, Damned If I Don’t,” and “New Ways to Fail” highlighted the night. The Disarmers played one of the best live sets to pass through the Mercury Lounge so far this year.
But where did it all come from? Where did it all start? Though much has been written about Sarah and her ascension very few have reached out to make the connection and get her side of the story straight from the source.
Luckily she was willing to talk with us, reflecting on her life and career to this point.
As we began I asked about her early life, and what lead her to music. Sarah was raised with a very religious upbringing in an environment where her current career in music would be slightly surprising. “We were allowed to listen to worship and praise music and classical only,” she began. “Even contemporary Christian bands were off limits.” Asking how it was she got into music she answered “I taught myself piano by ear when I was 9, not like a prodigy, just figuring out what notes made sense together and complemented each other. Sorting out how timing things differently could be used to build dynamic. Guitar came later when I was 16. I’d been writing simple songs for 7 years at that point but bear in mind up until that point I had no verbiage for what I was doing; I didn’t know I was writing basic song structures (verse/chorus/verse2/chorus) because I didn’t even know what a verse was.”
While some learn from example, Sarah, against some strenuous odds, had taught herself the basics on pure instinct alone. And while it was all natural to her, she didn’t use it as a means of escape. “Growing up in an extremely sheltered and isolated environment is a whole other thing and for me writing songs as a teenager wasn’t escapism as much as it was controlling my own narrative based on my (very uninformed) view of the world.”
As Sarah set out into the world on her own she formed some early bands behind her (Sarah Shook and the Devil, Sarah Shook and The Dirty Hands, both featuring Eric Peterson who is still with her today) and even cut EP’s with them while touring primarily in the Carolinas. Sarah used the experiences as a learning tool, however, telling me “My instinct has always been to build bands based on two things: skill and personality. Life’s too damn short to be stuck in a van for the majority of your time with someone who makes everybody else miserable. Had to learn that one the hard way a time or two but there’s no goin’ back,” she added, her wisdom fueled by experience.
The origins of Sarah Shook and the Disarmers dates back to 2013, when Shook, Patterson, Phil Sullivan, John Howie Jr, and Jason Hendrick rounded out the lineup. The group set out recording Sarah’s first full length album, and in 2015 released “Sidelong”. And while the record went on to be successful with the odds stacked against it, it wasn’t exactly all roses for Shook. “I was a total wreck about making that record, to be honest. It’s not that I was simply disinterested in having success in the music industry, I very actively and vocally didn’t want it or anything that comes with it. We independently released Sidelong in 2015 and it blew the fuck up. National and international press, rave reviews, accolades for days… Hell, we were nobody and had nothing. No booking agent, no management, no publicist, nothing. And here’s Rolling Stone covering my record,” she recalled even still with a certain amount of disbelief.
It left me curious how that made her feel about it all in retrospect, and after a short thought she answered “When I listen back to “Sidelong” I feel like it was an accurate and honest portrayal of where we were as a band, very young, and where I was as a person: trapped in a very oppressive and controlling relationship, angry, frustrated, and unable to see a way out. There’s a whole lotta righteous indignation woven into those songs and that music.”
The record was a launching point for her career, and I asked about how things fell into place from there. “We released Sidelong on our own in October of 2015. It wasn’t long after that Bloodshot records picked us up and re-released it in April of 2017. The big game changer with signing to Bloodshot was the touring commitment. We had very little touring history at the time. We’d played a ton of local dates but our max radius was about 3 hours away. We went from playing a handful of local shows annually to touring 100-150 dates a year. That’s a goddang adjustment. We had two West Coast tours and come November two European tours in less than a year. Still kinda blows my mind but we’re doin’ it, and it’s working.”
After hearing about the struggles during the recording of “Sidelong” I asked if those problems persisted when the band went to record “Years”. “No,” she answered confidently. “I grew a lot as a person between the recording of the two albums and I think it shows on ‘Years’. I firmly believe that as an artist, if your want your art to improve, you have to continue evolving as a human being. Heading into Manifold Recording Studios to track Years I wasn’t experiencing any of the existential dread and general anxiety I went through with ‘Sidelong’. I was ready to make a record and take the next steps even though I knew it was just going to propel us further into a lot of territory I still have a hard time navigating.” With my curiosity running high I asked what territory it was that she was having trouble navigating. “We’ve had a lot of success and for that I’m grateful. But I’ll never get used to fame, even on a small scale. It’s utterly dehumanizing and if there’s anything that’s important to me about our music it’s the human-ness of it. We’re real people. Always will be. I don’t want to be a celebrity.”
While she may feel she has trouble navigating the strange world of fame, she has a damn fine cast behind her now with her band, and they all keep it together well, not just as co-workers or bandmates, but as what Sarah described as a family. “My band is the family I get to choose and the folks I’m playing with right now, Eric Peterson (guitar), Phil Sullivan (pedal steel), Aaron Oliva (bass), Kevin McClain (drums), are not only monster level good musicians, they’re kind hearted, intelligent, compassionate, and fun humans to hang, and work with. We look out for each other,” she said proudly.
Through all the success and acknowledgement that “Years” and her incredible lives shows have brought her she still remains just as grounded and focused as ever saying “We’ve already started digging into a few of the songs for the next album, and I gotta say it was immensely satisfying.” She continued on talking about her upcoming schedule (Which is quite the run) and finally concluding by saying “Next year is gonna be insane in a whole lotta ways and I’m preparing for it mentally and physically. Gonna crush it.”
In a career and life steeped in pure perseverance and a relentless drive to do nothing but excel, when Sarah says she’s going to crush it there is no reason not to buy in and believe what she says 100%. Anyone who doesn’t jump on board may find themselves being part of “it” that winds up getting crushed by this badass baroness of soul, truth, and edge.
Click HERE to visit the official website of Sarah Shook and The Disarmers
Click HERE to see Sean Payne’s full gallery from the Mercury Lounge show
Special thanks to Sarah Shook and Bloodshot Records for their participation in this project!