Spotlight: Sarah Shook and the Disarmers
photo credit: Chad Cochran
Sarah Shook’s drinking days reached their nadir in July of 2019. The singer-songwriter from North Carolina was, by their own admission, consuming alcohol and drugs with a regularity that had become dangerous— undermining their personal relationships and clouding their professional success. “I definitely needed to quit drinking,” Shook says.
The vices, and the autobiographical songs Shook wrote about them, were quintessentially Outlaw Country. With their band, the Disarmers, Shook released two albums— 2015’s Sidelong and 2018’s Years— that delighted critics and won them a growing fanbase. Yet, the repertoire, mirroring Shook’s own downward spirals, was feeding off of an unsustainable cycle.
“I was getting wasted every night. That’s not an exaggeration. That’s not bravado. That’s the reality I was singing about,” Shook says. “It was destroying my health and scaring the hell out of my bandmates.” The group’s third album, Nightroamer—slated for release in mid-February—serves as somewhat of a transitional record for the punk-infused honkytonk quintet. Shook wrote the album’s 10 tracks over the past three years as they worked on their sobriety. Shook admits that it was an odd time—they were single and nearly always on tour, chasing Tinder dates after the gig. “As a serial monogamist that married very young, that was something I needed to get out of my system.”
Playing 150 shows a year, Shook says that many of their relationships suffered. And their artistic ambitions, their indulgences and the overall forward momentum of life on the road meant leaving a lot of people behind. “Which is fucking sad,” Shook says.
The band tracked Nightroamer in Los Angeles, with Dwight Yoakum’s longtime guitarist and producer, Pete Anderson, at the helm. Shook demoed most of the 10 tracks prior to their LA sessions. Two songs—“I Got This” and “Been Lovin’ You”—were last-minute arrivals though, encouraged by the Disarmers and rehearsed only once before recording.
“My bandmates always surprise me. I admire them so fucking deeply,” Shook says. “These two are not country songs but they’re really fun and a blast to play live.”
Tales of drunken one-nighters litter the lyrics of country music. Shook insists their past experiences were “incredibly unhealthy coping mechanisms” combating years of trauma and abusive relationships. Sobriety offered a light of hope in the fog, and a fresh perspective on therapy.
Shook had always considered professional help to be cost-prohibitive. A friend referred them to a therapist collective that billed on a sliding scale, matching them with a specialist in their area. And “I Got This” is affirmation of Shook’s rejuvenated mental health.
The songwriter’s therapeutic experiences have also blend into their stage banter. Yet, their Sidelong and Years cuts, which chronicle their more reckless days, remain in their setlists. Shook sees a power in owning those stumbling blocks, too.
“How do I feel about things I wrote back when I was pounding whiskey and doing mountains of blow every night?” Shook asks rhetorically. “I’m not ashamed of those parts of my life. They were steps that got me to where I am today. As a person grows as an individual, their art reflects that. If you want your art to improve, you need to work on yourself.”
Shook is a proud member of the LGBTQ community. In 2016, they received an Indy Arts Award for their work with the Chapel Hill-based Safe Space Initiative. And Shook is, indeed, the night roamer referenced in the album’s title.
“I love to walk around at night. I’m in the van all day. The only time I get to walk around is after dark,” Shook says. “I read a poll that said the overwhelming response from women asked what they would do in a world without men for 24 hours was go for a walk at night.”
Shook also admits to being “insanely introverted.” Performing did not come naturally and hiding behind a music stand onstage was common practice. When they finally ditched the stand, alcohol proved a capable substitute to quell the terror. But the drinking also started to dull their signature vocals, and Shook’s unique cadence—a crucial component of their high and lonesome style—is sharper and more provocative now that they are sober.
At the end of February, they’ll join legends Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell on the Outlaw Country Cruise, kicking off a tour that will likely stretch into summer. Then, Shook will return to prepping for their solo album, which is slated for release this fall, as well as a round of support dates. For now, though, the focus is on Nightroamer.
“To me, this needs to feel like a wide-open space,” Shook says. “It is like you’ve been crammed in a tiny cellar for a year, and you’re finally coming out, and there’s a meadow. It feels like experiencing the hope of all the good things that are possible.”