All Shook Up: Bisexual vegan single mom Sarah Shook lays country music out with a punk punch

Why call a spade a spade when it’s a fucking shovel? Bi-sexual vegan atheist activist Sarah Shook doesn’t. She doesn’t mince about with platitudes. She doesn’t pretend. She lays her bare, spare, and, seriously, wondrous existence out in melody, unveiling truths that many hide behind cell phones, paycheques and facades.

For it’s a shovel, not a spade, with which she digs into 36 minutes of bliss with her second album, Years, with her band, The Disarmers, somehow, eclipsing their extraordinary first album, 2015’s Sidelong. If you need an explanation of that title, you haven’t lived it.

Because Sidelong’s an experience. It’s a lover coming at you when you’re unaware, kicking you in the place birth comes from. It’s drinking water at night because you downed every drop of whiskey before noon. It’s whatever’s gonna happen next, hitting you not from above nor behind but inside, knocking you off your path, well, Sidelong. The album was re-released when Bloodshot Records picked up Shook’s band last year. They released the band’s second album, Years, a few months ago, upping the ante.

Maybe it’s the experiences Shook packed into her first three decades. Born in Rochester, New York, home-schooled by her Christian parents, she wasn’t permitted to hear anything but gospel music (not even contemporary Christian music) and classical. She was 19 when the family moved to Garner, North Carolina; poverty meant Shook couldn’t afford to stay on her own. She disliked the new town and was bickering with her parents, so she married a man she met three weeks earlier on the Internet to escape. The marriage dissolved and left Shook with a son, Jonah, all before she played her first gig.

Friends had introduced her to Elliott Smith, The Decemberists, and Belle and Sebastian when she was in her teens, after she’d taught herself to play piano at age nine. By then she was playing guitar. And by the time Shook formed her first bands, she was writing autobiographical lines like, “Ain’t a thing that I can change to get my luck up, I guess I’m just too much of a fuck up” and, after being left by her lover for a country singer, “She said he likes to make love when he’s smokin’/And he don’t walk around like he’s broken/And he sings just like Dwight Yoakam.” Shook once said she cried the whole time she was writing the song.

That emotion is balanced by stunning clarity. Shook’s unabashed about the hard-drinking, hard-partying lifestyle she enjoyed while gigging close to her home, a trailer in the woods in Pittsboro, North Carolina, as an unlikely country singer in the deep-south. Then one day her long-term guitarist, Eric Peterson, e-mailed her wondering if they were going to record, make merchandise and tour. Otherwise, he said, he would have to lower his expectations.

The eventual result of that gentle prodding led to recording, being signed to Bloodshot, and to Shook being on the road with her band, The Disarmers, for a huge chunk of this year.

Theyyscene caught up with her when she stopped at Bend, Oregon, enroute to her first Canadian gig at the Calgary Folk Music Festival.

Q: How are you holding up on the road? What are you doing to stay sane?

A: I eat really well and I hydrate and that’s about the only two good things I do for myself, honest. We have a cooler on the road that (we got) last year, it makes everything a lot easier. Fresh produce before these coolers was not accessible; it was a big game-changer and certainly helped a lot.

Q: You’ve spoken about your guitarist Eric Peterson sending you and e-mail saying basically, “Are we going to get serious?” so he could set his expectations accordingly. He knew you had “it.” Was that because you’d had an initial plan that didn’t happen?

A: Well there wasn’t really a plan at the beginning other than just playing music for fun and playing local shows. We didn’t really have ambition to really play much further outside of a couple of hour radius. We were just like the local band didn’t have merch to offer — we didn’t have a record or anything like that.

The chief engineer of Manifold Studio, Ian Schreier, had contacted us and basically said he was interested in making a full-length album and I just dropped the ball on it and didn’t really do anything with it.

I don’t think I realized at the time that Eric felt that way about it, so reading that message was just like kind of shocking, but it certainly got me into the zone to contact the studio and set up a meeting and get the ball rolling so to speak: “That’s what you want to do, let’s do it!”

Q: A lot of bands decide to record and have merchandise and tour and get serious, but they remain unknown. Any insights as to why it’s working for you?

A: I think it’s kind of a combination of a lot of things. I think the timing was really good for us and that we work really hard and pretty damn relentlessly and that’s a big part of it. You have to be willing to put in the time and play the shows.

You know how music is, you start at the bottom and you play the gigs for very little pay, you play to 10 people, and you put out a good album and then you keep doing it and over time the rooms start filling up. The next thing you know you’re selling out shows in Brooklyn and L.A. and you have a record that’s getting international press and a lot of it’s just work. You know, being willing to put the work in and play the crap gigs and know that with determination and persistence and palette, that’s what it takes. You’ve got to be willing to go all in, you’ve got to be willing to make sacrifices. And not everyone’s willing to do that.

Definitely releasing Years in April and coming off a pretty strong re-release of Sidelong in April of last year, just the one-two punch on Bloodshot, completely opened a lot more doors for us and widened our audience substantially. And like I was telling someone at the show last night, a wave comes along once, and you either catch it or you don’t. You’ve got to be ready.

Q: You’ve been unapologetic about your love for whiskey and partying. Did you ever worry about how that would play out in your role as a mother?

A: I completely embrace it. When I’m home and I have my son, we live a very modest, quiet peaceful life, and we spend a lot of really good quality time together. We have a very open and very communicative relationship, and we talk about all kinds of things, like serious philosophical issues, and he’s wise beyond his years and can hold a conversation like that. And then when I’m on the road, it’s like that’s my other life.

I’m just like doing my complete other end of the spectrum and just like going crazy and playing music every night and partying, and for me personally I feel like my life has always had an element of dichotomy to it. I feel like I sort of need that to stay sane. I need home and peace and all that, and I like the chaos of the road.

Q: You’ve talked about the challenge of needing to be completely alone to write songs. With two albums out, how are you making space for that?

A: The way that my process is I’m not disciplined, I don’t have time set aside when I’m at home to write, and so basically I just go about my life, and collect as many experiences as I possibly can, and my subconscious just kind of pieces everything together it can. Being alone is part of it. I have to be alone for that to happen, but lyrics, melody, chorus, chord progression, all of that just happens at the same time. And usually I’m done writing a song in about 15 to 20 minutes. Every once in a while I’ll go back and tweak a few things and make some adjustments.

Q: You revel in being an excellent parent and musician, but being a bisexual, single mom activist in the south, a country singer no less, might ruffle some feathers. Are you every concerned about the kooks coming out, or are you too under the radar?

A: No, I don’t think that we’re necessarily under the radar, but I don’t worry about that at all. If feel like being open and honest about stuff like that is important because there’s a lot of people out there that are in some kind of a position where they have a platform to talk about stuff like that and they chose not to. That’s fine and that’s their position, but for me, myself, I feel it’s really important to talk about that.

(Photo courtesy John Gessner.)

Sarah Shook and The Disarmers play at the Calgary Folk Music Festival Saturday, July 28 on Stage 4 at 1:50 p.m. in the Western Union Workshop, and at 4:20 p.m. in the Bold Country for No Men Workshop. On Sunday, July 29, they play Stage 4 at 1:50 p.m. for the Business Casual Workshop and a solo show on Stage 5 at 4:45 p.m. For tickets and the full schedule please go to calgaryfolkfest.com.

Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer.