Upstate Beat: The Evolution of Sarah Shook

Mac Rebennack

I’ve talked about Sarah Shook before. I’ve talked about how the two albums she’s made with her first-rate band, The Disarmers, combine the best elements of raw, rootsy rock ‘n’ roll and pure country twang. I’ve talked about how intense her live shows can be — not intense in terms of volume, but in terms of emotion. Staring down at her guitar, or at her feet, Shook can tear your heart out with just a few verses in her plainspoken, flatly honest voice. As she becomes better-known, those topics will become more and more familiar to people.

But as I prepared to interview her about her return to the Radio Room in Greenville on June 3, I realized that I didn’t know a lot about how this Chapel Hill, North Carolina, singer/songwriter began the acclaimed music career that’s seen her albums “Sidelong” and “Years” draw praise from taste-makers like No Depression magazine, the Saving Country Music website, Rolling Stone, and many more. So I asked.

“I started becoming interested in music when I was 8 or 9 years old,” she says. “My folks had this absolutely awful out-of-tune upright piano, and that was a catchall in our hallway for clutter. I taught myself to play on that piano. I didn’t have any words for what I was doing. I didn’t know what a verse was. I didn’t know what a chord was, so in my little-kid brain I just figured out what notes sounded good together.”

At age 16, Shook began teaching herself guitar. But she still didn’t actually play any live shows until she was 21 years old.

“I didn’t really have any ambition to play shows,” she says. “I was writing songs was really just for myself. I found it very comforting and centering.”

But even when she played for an audience for the first time, she still didn’t really catch the performing bug.

“It was OK,” she says of that show. “I was doing this mellow singer/songwriter thing, and I didn’t really hate it, but I’ve never really been ambitious, and I’ve never been the kind of person who wanted to hit the big time or get that big break.”

The tide began to turn when she and guitarist Eric Peterson began working together in 2010. They went through several different bands, including a drummerless old-school country group, before figuring out what they really wanted to do. The duo eventually formed The Disarmers, but even then, Shook wasn’t that interested in trying to record her music or touring beyond her immediate area. That’s when Peterson essentially threw down the gauntlet.

Sarah Shook
Sarah Shook & The Disarmers will play Radio Room at 8 p.m. June 3. Photo by John Gessner.

“Eric sent the whole band this really long email,” she says. “He’s a man of few words, so when you get a paragraphs-long email from him, you’re going to pay attention. He said, ‘If we’re not going to put out a record, and if we’re only going to tour within a three-hour radius, that’s fine, but you need to let me know so I can adjust my expectations.’”

Not wanting to lose Peterson, Shook jumped into action, reaching out to Manifold Studios in Pittsboro, North Carolina, to set up recording dates. That’s where the band recorded “Sidelong,” which they released independently in 2015. They caught the attention of Bloodshot Records, a label that signed the band and gave “Sidelong” a national release.

“The biggest adjustment was that our contract stated that we had to be on the road a minimum of 150 dates a year,” she says. “That was very difficult. That first year we were touring a lot, I was in a really bad place. It was so taxing mentally, and it was hard to have anything left to give.”

Ultimately, what turned Shook around on live performance, and on the idea of committing to a music career, wasn’t ambition, but her connection to the band that was standing behind her.

“I love my bandmates,” she says. “The thing that kept me going was, ‘You got in this boat, and now you have people depending on you,'” she says. “You have a responsibility to them.”

And now, Shook says there’s nowhere she’d rather be than onstage with The Disarmers. “I love our records,” she says. “I’m really happy with them. But there’s NOTHING like playing a live show.”

If you go

What: Sarah Shook & The Disarmers, w/ Darby & The Peep Show
When: 8 p.m. Monday, June 3
Where: Radio Room, 110 Poinsett Highway, Greenville
Tickets: $10 advance, $13 door
Info: 864-609-4441,


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