If you’ve enjoyed watching artists like Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Lydia Loveless, and Margo Price bring some real-life grit and old-school twang back to country music, then it might be time to check out what Rochester, New York’s Sarah Shook is doing with her band, The Disarmers. On her two albums, 2015’s “Sidelong” and 2018’s “Years,” she blends rock ’n’ roll guitars with a plain-spoken, Southern-style delivery, sounding like the next step on a path forged by artists like Lucinda Williams and Kim Richey.
As a songwriter, Shook is remarkably skilled at taking moments of heartache or small victories of her own and bringing them to vivid life. On the pedal-steel spiked “Over You” (from “Years”), Shook proclaims, “I’ve had more than enough/ You can’t tell me that this is love.” Elsewhere, on the midtempo, staggering “The Bottle Never Let Me Down,” Shook uncorks a near-classic verse of wounded honky-tonk wisdom:
“Every day you tell me I’m a drunkard/ And every night you lie awake and stew/ I never claimed to be anything other, darling/ ’Cause the bottle never lets me down the way you do.”
“My songs are my moments to exorcise my demons,” Shook says. “I don’t believe in doing things half-assed. I sing from the heart. The subject matter is heavy, so that’s going to come out emotionally. I’m not up onstage to strum a guitar and look pretty; I’m up there to talk about real s—.”
As you might have noticed, much like in her lyrics and music, Shook in conversation is a no-BS kind of person. She has few qualms about telling it like it is. For example, here’s Shook talking about her level of focus on her new release as opposed to her previous album.
“When we made ‘Sidelong,’ I was wasted the entire time,” she says, “and when we made ‘Years,’ I was determined to be sober and be more emotionally present, and I think that comes through.”
Shook says she took solace in the bottle while making her first full-length album because at the time, her band was less than 3 years old and she didn’t feel comfortable with the recording process.
“I didn’t want to put an album out and my band did, and I felt pressure to do it,” she says. “We didn’t have a lot of touring history and we weren’t really playing a lot of shows, even on the local level. Plus, I felt very wary of the music industry and success on any level, because it compromises you in a way.”
It’s a good thing she managed to move past that reluctance, because “Sidelong” was one of the best-reviewed albums of the year, garnering raves from Paste magazine, No Depression, The Wall Street Journal, and Rolling Stone, among many others. Coming off of that album, Shook felt a different kind of apprehension while making the followup.
“I think when you put something out that’s really well-received, it’s normal to feel the pressure to follow it up with something that’s just as good, if not better,” she says. “You can feel it. And it’s a good thing, because it really motivates you to get your s— together. And I felt like with ‘Years’ being the sophomore album, it was clear that the band had been playing together longer; we were tighter as a unit.”
“Years” was equally as acclaimed as “Sidelong” and a strong seller, reaching No. 1 on Amazon’s Alt-Country and Americana Bestsellers lists. Shook and The Disarmers have begun playing bigger shows, too. After their performances at both Horizon Records and Radio Room on Friday, they’ll be returning to the Upstate in October as headliners at the Fall for Greenville festival.
As for her suspicion of the music industry, Shook says she’s more comfortable than ever and making the music she wants to make.
“Our music isn’t for everybody, and that’s cool,” she says. “I’m not trying to appeal to some kind of lowest common denominator. If I was going to do that, I’d be making pop music.”
Sarah Shook & The Disarmers with Vilai Harrington & The Hamptones
Where: Horizon Records, 2-A W. Stone Ave. and the Radio Room, 110 Poinsett Highway, Greenville
When: Friday, Aug. 31: 5 p.m. (Horizon Records); 8 p.m. (Radio Room)
Tickets: Horizon admission is free; Radio Room show admission is $10 in advance, $13 at door
Info: http://www.radioroomgreenville.com/, http://horizonrecords.net/