I was expecting Lucinda Williams meets Dwight Yoakam when Sarah Shook & The Disarmers took the stage at Pearl Street Warehouse recently. Well, I got that… and a whole lot more.
Eric Peterson’s lead guitar conveyed the perfect balance between bite and twang. Phil Sullivan’s pedal steel reached that high, lonesome sound. And Aaron Oliva on upright bass and Kevin McClain on drums kept the tempo chugging relentlessly along. But my attention was completely focused on Sarah’s voice (shades of Joan Jett) — both expressive and husky, and not afraid to sing the occasional ballad, sweet and tender. This was not just another country-punk bar band.
Sarah began playing music when she was nine years old, teaching herself piano. Having been raised in a strictly fundamentalist Christian family, she had never been exposed to rock and roll. But at 17, a friend played her the Decemberists EP and there was no turning back. She bought a guitar, studied a chord chart, and taught herself to play. Soon, she was writing songs — and in 2010, she formed her first band, Sarah Shook & The Devil. That band dissolved in 2013, with Shook and guitarist Eric moving on to form Sarah Shook & The Dirty Hands. Within months, the Dirty Hands fell apart but was soon replaced by its new incarnation of Sarah Shook & The Disarmers.
But living up to the “punk” aspect of Sarah’s country rock began to take a toll — partying, drinking, and the associated shenanigans threatened to derail a promising musical journey. Eric, who’d been with Sarah from the start, was at a crossroads. If The Disarmers planned to continue as a bar band, playing local shows at the same venues, he’d have to consider other options.
But Sarah wasn’t about to let down the one musician who’d stuck with her from the start.
So, in 2015, the band recorded an album, the critically acclaimed gem, Sidelong (re-released by Bloodshot Records in 2017), and it began touring extensively outside their native North Carolina. In April 2018, Shook released Years, also to critical acclaim. Indeed, the evening’s opener at Pearl Street Live, “Good as Gold,” earned a mention as one of Rolling Stone’s 10 best country and Americana songs for March 2018.
Here’s a recent performance of the song at Paste studios:
The night’s set featured songs from both albums. Standouts included “Heal Me,” “Sidelong,” and the heartbreaking “Dwight Yoakam,” which featured Phil’s plaintive and aching pedal steel. Songs like “Fuck Up,” “The Bottle Never Let Me Down,” and “Nothin’ Feels Right but Doin’ Wrong” portrays Sarah’s penchant for writing unapologetically about the years of living the rock and roll lifestyle to the hilt. But then a song like “New Ways to Fail” comes along (“I need this shit like I need another hole in my head”), and clearly Sarah Shook has taken control of her life.
All this is to say, Sarah Shook & The Disarmers are much more than a fun honky-tonk party bar band. In most of our lives, there comes a point where we say to ourselves, “Damn, I’ve gotta get my shit together”… even if we never actually feel we do. But pursuing one’s work, family, or art as if your life depended on it simply kicks in, and then everything changes.
Sarah Shook & The Disarmers may never fill stadiums, but they sure as hell aren’t going to settle for playing the same neighborhood bar weekend after weekend. Find music, video, and tour information on the band’s website.
Here are some pictures of Sarah Shook & The Disarmers performing at Pearl Street Warehouse on Sept. 12, 2018. All photos copyright and courtesy of Mark Caicedo.