Sarah Shook & the Disarmers Dodge Categorizations on Their New Country-Punk Album: NPR

Don Gonyea talks to country-punk musician Sarah Shook of Sarah Shook & the Disarmers about the band’s new album, “Nightroamer,” and Shook’s journey to sobriety.



DON GONYEA, HOST:

The honky-tonk punk of Sarah Shook & the Disarmers defies proper categorization.

(SOUNDTRACK FROM THE SONG, “IF IT’S POISON”)

SARAH SHOOK AND THE DISARMERS: (Singing) Lately, this time, we found the right moment. Lately, I feel like life is pretty good.

GONYEA: On their third album, “Nightroamer,” you can almost imagine people like Waylon Jennings or Tanya Tucker plugging into some of the songs. But then comes the squealing electric guitars that take us back to indie rock of the 90s and early 2000s, all with lyrics about the struggle for some sort of redemption. Sarah Shook joins us from Chapel Hill, NC Sarah, thank you so much for being here.

SARAH SHOOK: Thanks for having me, Don.

GONYEA: I guess you’re the night owl of the song the album is named after?

SHOOK: Oh, you got it (laughs).

(SOUND EXTRACTION OF THE SONG, “NIGHTROAMER”)

SARAH SHOOK AND THE DISARMERS: (Singing) Bloodied and raising the flag (ph).

GONYEA: Explain.

SHOOK: Well, I wrote “Nightroamer” at a time when I was trying unsuccessfully to get sober. I had a bottle of whiskey in my backpack and I was trying so hard not to drink. And I was like, man, I’m just – you know, I’m going to go for a walk and put some literal distance between me and this thing that – I’m really struggling with.

(SOUND EXTRACTION OF THE SONG, “NIGHTROAMER”)

SARAH SHOOK AND THE DISARMERS: (Singing) Sweat runs down my face. And that’s how I found you in an (unintelligible) time (ph), in a distant place.

SHOOK: And I found a graveyard and sat down and wrote the whole song without a guitar, which is nice – that doesn’t happen very often. But I was like, okay, well, I have to get back to the hotel so I can get my guitar out of the trailer and start putting chords and a melody on it.

(SOUND EXTRACTION OF THE SONG, “NIGHTROAMER”)

SARAH SHOOK AND THE DISARMERS: (Singing) Goodbye from Kansas.

SHOOK: Actually, I got pulled over by a cop on the way home. I was on foot. I don’t know if I mentioned that.

(TO LAUGH)

GONYEA: Alright.

SHOOK: It ended up being quite an ordeal. But yes, “Nightroamer” is very autobiographical. I’m a night person, for one thing. That’s when I think best. It’s when I’m most creative. But I think “Nightroamer” also has this promise of going against the grain to try to find something.

GONYEA: Yeah. I want to listen to the song “Ca ne change rien” now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “IT CHANGES NOTHING”)

SARAH SHOOK AND THE DISARMERS: (Singing) The devil on your shoulder is your only friend. There he sits just to remind you that all good things must come to an end.

GONYEA: OK, let’s start with that opening line, the devil on your shoulder is your only friend. I should add here, the angel on the other shoulder is nowhere to be found in this song.

SHOOK: That’s right (laughs).

GONYEA: So talk about it, the devil on your shoulder being your friend here.

SHOOK: Yeah. Well, I mean, a good friend tells the truth, on the one hand, and I feel like in that context, you know, the person having a good conversation gets the facts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “IT CHANGES NOTHING”)

SARAH SHOOK AND THE DISARMERS: (Singing) God is dead, and heaven is silent. Death has lost its sting. It doesn’t change anything.

SHOOK: My partner was joking the other day. He was like, man, I just listened to “It Changes Nothing” again and, like, it’s like, a black metal song. I was like, what? He was like, yeah, I mean, you know, by the purest definition, like, it’s – you know, obviously in terms of genre, it’s not black metal. The music is not black metal. But, like, lyrically, I think you wrote a metal song.

GONYEA: You sing God is dead, and the sky is silent. Death has lost its sting. Your – I think your partner is right.

SHOOK: Yeah (laughs).

GONYEA: Have you ever had the chance to perform any of those songs live in front of an audience, you know, along with the songs you wrote before you got sober? And I wonder what it does.

SHOOK: Yeah, there’s a handful of songs from “Nightroamer” that we’ve been playing live for a while. And they went very well. I remember a long time ago, when I first quit drinking, I kind of worked up the courage to talk about it on stage during a performance. And I – you know, you never really know how people are going to react to anything. And, you know, I had almost built this brand of myself, like, I get drunk every night and do drugs and get in trouble, and that’s what I do. And so to pull that, like, 180 – people have been so supportive.

(SOUNDTRACK FROM THE SONG, “I GOT THIS”)

SARAH SHOOK AND THE DISARMERS: (Singing) Up here in the atmosphere. I have this. The sun is shining and my eyes are clear. I have this.

GONYEA: You are non-binary and very involved in LGBTQ advocacy. I wonder, do you feel like inclusivity is becoming a bigger goal of the country music scene?

SHOOK: Yeah, I’ve seen a lot of growth. And having been home for the past two years due to the pandemic, I don’t feel like the growth has slowed. I kind of feel like the pace has picked up, just because of the things I see online on social media and in the press. And that makes me really excited to go back and be part of it in real time.

GONYEA: Let’s end with something a little loud. It is also the song that closes the album. It’s called “Talkin’ To Myself”.

(SOUND EXTRACTION OF SONG, “TALKIN’ TO MYSELF”)

SARAH SHOOK AND THE DISARMERS: (singing) I talk about it myself. Talk to myself. I didn’t want to dwell on that.

GONYEA: Okay, tell us about the song.

SHOOK: I wrote “Talkin’ To Myself” sort of — around the start of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 in the summer. And I was thinking about the fact that no matter where you are, so many of us are in our own little bubbles and we only have relationships with like-minded people. So existing in a bubble, you might as well just be talking to yourself because that’s – everyone’s using the same rhetoric and you’re not – you know, you’re definitely not looking for people who challenge what you believe. And I feel like for any kind of real lasting change to happen, I feel like we just have to be willing to step out of our comfort zones and have those conversations.

GONYEA: We talked to Sarah Shook about Sarah Shook & the Disarmers. Their new album, “Nightroamer” is out now. Sarah Shook, thank you very much.

SHOOK: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “NO MISTAKES”)

SARAH SHOOK AND THE DISARMERS: (Singing) Well, I’m not making mistakes like last time.

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