Queer singer/songwriter Sarah Shook is here to shake up contemporary country music. Her take on the traditional country breakup tune, on songs such as “Good As Gold,” “New Ways To Fail,” “Over You,” “Parting Ways” and “Heartache In Hell” from album “Years” (Bloodshot), redefine the genre’s old standby in new and refreshing ways. As for drinking songs, Shook has more than a few in her repertoire. Putting the out in outlaw, the North Carolina-based Shook was kind enough to speak with me about her music in February 2018.
Gregg Shapiro: I recently interviewed singer/songwriters Lucy Dacus and H.C. McEntire, both of whom are, like you, queer Southern women. Have you found community among queer Southerners, especially among creative people? If so, what does that mean to you?
Sarah Shook: I think there is definitely a community here in the Chapel Hill area. I do remind myself often that we have the luxury of living in a pretty progressive bubble up here. There are a lot of great venues and clubs owned by forward-thinking individuals. There are local businesses that are non-discriminatory in their practices. It is something that I try to keep in mind — that one, two or three counties over it’s a whole different story.
GS: Your band is called The Disarmers. How did that name come about?
SS: I wanted to choose a name that made our politics pretty clear. Especially being in an outlaw country band that comes with a certain kind of expectation sometimes from the consumers’ point of view. [Laughs] Every stereotype and trope you can imagine about that is still kind of alive and well today [laughs]. I wanted to pick something that was not confrontational as much as it was a playful suggestion of where our ideas lie.
GS: Your new album “Years” features some heart-tugging break-up songs, including “Over You” and “Heartache In Hell.” What is it about country music that makes it such a good fit for songs of this nature?
SS: I think, in general, country music is great for the classic sort of tale-of-woe, tear-in-your-beer type of story. Oftentimes, lyrically, country songs can be self-deprecating. At the same time, one of the things that’s interesting to me about country music, (specifically) country songs written by a man from the man’s point of view about a woman, is the way the character often gives no indication as to what it was that he did [laughs] to drive his ex-lover away. It’s more just a bemoaning of his state where he paints himself as this victim of circumstances who’s now going to be walking the floor forever over this lost love [laughs]. I try to change things up, especially as far as traditional gender roles are concerned, lyrically and emotionally, within my songs.
GS: On the flipside, there are also songs, such as “Good As Gold” and “New Ways To Fail,” about surviving break-ups. Which is more fun to write — songs about surviving break-ups or songs about wallowing over a break-up?
SS: Surviving is definitely more fun [laughs]. But I think that both types of songs, and songwriting processes, are important for me. Especially because you can’t tell the whole story or paint the whole picture with one of those. Allowing yourself to feel the pain and heartache of loss, but not giving up at that point. Picking yourself up and carrying on afterwards. One thing I like to say is that I can’t afford a therapist and my songwriting is [laughs] my catharsis and my therapy.
GS: To my ears, “Parting Words” and “What It Takes” contain some of your most overtly queer lyrics.
SS: A lot of my songs are written empathetically from someone else in my life’s point of view. “Parting Words,” as well as “Good As Gold,” was interesting in terms of the songwriting process in that a lot of the breakup songs on “Years” were written about my recent ex-boyfriend. I was writing the songs about him but from his perspective. Trying to play on his view of the way things were as much as I might disagree with it. It’s interesting to me, and it encourages me that “Parting Words” is a song that anyone can listen to and find some kind of relevance. It can be any combination of lovers. It can be a song from a woman’s point of view about a woman or a woman and a man or any combination. As far as the bigger universal picture, I think it’s important that we think about things like that. When you think about it in those terms, all of these invisible lines that divide us get erased. At the end of the day, we’re all just people who are amazingly experiencing the same things in different ways.
GS: “The Bottle Never Lets Me Down” is a nod to Merle Haggard’s “The Bottle Let Me Down.” Where does Haggard land on your list of musical influences?
SS: I honestly don’t listen to a lot of Merle Haggard. If I’m going to be listening to old school country, I’ll listen to Charley Pride. Hank (Williams) Sr. is one of my all-time favorite songwriters. Also Kitty Wells.
GS: How much of the songs in which drinking figures — “Damned If I Do, Damned If I Don’t,” “Lessons,” “The Bottle Never Lets Me Down” — are based on experience and how much are poetic license?
SS: They’re all based on experience [laughs]. One of the things that’s really frustrating to me now is that there are so many bands that are jumping on the country and Americana bandwagon, writing songs about whiskey because they have seen other bands have success doing that. They’re like, “Let’s just do this cookie-cutter model thing where we can sing about heartache and getting drunk every night.” It’s beyond frustrating to me when this is my actual life that they’re co-opting. I actually do drink whiskey every night. I do have a problem. I do rely on these substances to help me get through the pain of life. To see them cavalierly throw alcoholism and substance abuse around is incredibly frustrating.
GS: You are embarking on a multi-city concert tour. What can folks expect when they attend a Sarah Shook & The Disarmers show?
SS: We have a lot of fun onstage. We’re rowdy and loud. We are not a mild-mannered group of people on the stage [laughs]. We’re very raucous!
Sarah Shook & the Disarmers
“Years” Album Release Show
The Cradle, 300 E. Main St., Carborro, NC
511 E. 36th St., Charlotte, NC
Tickets: $10/advance, $13/day of
For more information, visit disarmers.com.