Country music's most biting comedian, Sarah Shook, begins her second album Years with a pointed impression. While her longtime guitarist Eric Peterson drunkenly flits around a sluggish, chugging drum beat, Shook puts on a jockish voice and starts a searing caricature of a man too selfish to know what’s good for him. “I’m afraid of losing, not afraid of losing you” she sings. “Cause I don’t think of you like a thing of mine that I can just up and lose.” Shook sings from the point of view of the man who is selfishly explaining why it didn’t work out between them without any sense of self-awareness, her voice a wink to the listener before she backhands the guy, telling him, “it won't be long/ 'Til the wrong song comes on / At the right time.”
“That was my little jab in his direction,” Shook says over the phone, of the jealous ex the song is written from the perspective of. “I was like, ‘Man, I’m not a possession. I’m a human being. I’m a person with valid experiences.” It’s an obvious statement, but it doesn't sound like a cliche coming from Shook, a pansexual country artist, single mother, and community activist who grew up homeschooled in a fundamentalist Christian family in Rochester, New York before moving to North Carolina, starting two bands, and landing a record deal with Bloodshot Records.
Equal parts Joan Jett and Hank Williams, Shook and the Disarmers are pioneers, finding a space that allows them to marry country and punk without falling victim to the corniness that can come from trying too hard to make one sound like the other. It’s not country, rockabilly, punk, or even cowpunk—a brave yet unconvincing attempt to create a genre where bands like Social Distortion and Reverend Horton Heat can exist riling up purists on either side. Sadly, despite its attempt to earnestly categorize bands, it never stuck as a signifier the first time around. But then again, cowpunk at the time didn’t have someone as bonafide as Sarah Shook. “It’s ‘cause I’m living that shit,” she says of her songs’ subject matter, laughing. “It’s not by design, it’s how I live. This is my life.”
The band’s first release, Sidelong, was independently recorded and released in 2015. Shook has been writing songs for over five years and playing with her band the Disarmers for three—the Disarmers were known as the Dirty Hands for a while, and before that, the Devil—but she didn’t release her debut album Sidelong until 2015, when Peterson, who had played alongside her as a Devil and a Dirty Hand, gave her an ultimatum: Commit to this music thing, or he would be forced to reconsider his commitment to her as a sideman. "It was the longest message I've ever seen from him," Shook told Indy Week in 2015. "He's a man of few words."
After agonizing over it for a while (“We had a million band meetings before we made this decision, we explored every possible way to do this without being on a label,” she said), she and her bandmates signed to Bloodshot Records in January 2017 and re-released Sidelong in April of that same year with the label. It grabbed my attention immediately. “At the end of the day,” she says, they decided “[signing with Bloodshot] is just the next step that makes sense for us.” Rip-roaring and precariously doused in high-proof spirits, the album was written while Shook was in the middle of a relationship that was on its way out. Many of its songs portrayed Shook from the point of view of the person she was with, taking advantage of one of country music’s favorite tropes, the lover who has been irreparably wronged.
Shook messes with that well-worn topic a bit, allowing the culprit to explain their side of the story and at least attempt to convince you that neither party is totally in the right. It gives the songs where she’s the narrator a little more gravitas. Sidelong is a this-didn’t-work-but-I didn’t-like-you-anyway kind of breaking-up album, and while it would be completely understandable for Years to take on the cynical, self-loathing qualities one expects of an album that comes from the liminality of life in between serious romantic relationships, Shook has never been one to do things the way anyone else does.
“I remember asking him, ‘Do you realize what the fucking level of shit is going on in this country right now, and you’re choosing to expend energy on this?’”
When she was a child, her dad taught her the power of self-analysis, emphasizing to her that if she could understand her emotions and motives she would have an upper hand on almost everyone else when it came to making decisions. “When we recorded Sidelong, I was wasted the entire time,” she says. “I made the decision prior to recording Years that I wanted to be sober in order to be a lot more mentally and emotionally present,” Shook says. So, she tells me, she spent a lot of time with Sidelong ahead of the pre-production for Years. It was good, she decided, but knew it could be better. She studied vocal techniques so that she could hit notes more accurately while in the studio, changing the way she sings and how she controls her voice, and the difference is palpable. “Even just the control of my voice and the way I sing sounds completely different to me now,” Shook says. “I really wanted to be singing my best.”
In comparison, Years’ songs are slower and more emotionally open, like the bleary end of the long night at the bar where you’re still sober enough to remember everything but it’s tinged in that anxiety that comes from looking up and seeing almost everyone has left. It’s a more contemplative record, whereas Sidelong was, Shook says, “just blow the doors open, crazy, wild.” It’s a mature energy, a little more weary. “Nobody told me it’s like this out here / Is that what it takes? / It takes everything / It’s cause it’s so real / This love,” Shook cries on “What It Takes” a driving rockabilly song featuring her trademark expressive voice that gives away her intentions almost immediately. Written after a very intense and unpleasant fight with an ex, (“Some stupid jealous bullshit,” she says) it’s a half-angry, half-resigned acknowledgement of how life can be sometimes.
“I remember asking him, ‘Do you realize what the fucking level of shit is going on in this country right now, and you’re choosing to expend energy on this?’” she says. “There are so many more important things.” The first half of “What It Takes” addresses him on a personal level, and the second half widens the lens to focus on the world as a whole, each section employing a melodic bridge to give the listener time to reflect on each verse. “I can hear the voice of my mother, echoing down through the years, saying ‘love your sisters and brothers, it’s why we’re all put here.”’ It’s not meant to be dismissive of personal issues. “We as individuals and couples have our issues and our struggles but we can’t be so consumed with our personal lives that we forget that there are really big things going on out there,” she says. “There’s still a lot of injustice out there, the scales haven’t been balanced yet.”
I own this shit, this is mine. Don’t take what’s very real and very important to me and throw it into this cookie-cutter bullshit.”
Shook is fond of playing with gender boundaries, and she’s able to blur the lines of masculinity and femininity in a way that feels natural. She adopts more traditionally masculine presentations on songs about letting people down and “accidentally” staying out until the break of dawn (“New Ways to Fail,” “Damned If I Do, Damned If I Don’t”). On “The Bottle Never Lets Me Down,” she makes it explicit: “I keep this bottle close at hand,” she sorrowfully warbles. “It’s the only thing left I got that can, make me feel the man I used to be.” Personal failings are some of country music’s bread and butter, but women are rarely allowed to safely express that they were in the wrong and be forgiven for it. Instead, they are pushed into playing the role of the victim, subject to the whims of the male ego. Sarah Shook embodies both perspectives, writing movingly as both a victim of someone else’s self-involvement and as its perpetrator.
Years doesn’t feel like the product a new band, but one that’s seen some shit, wrestled with it, and come out the other side a stronger, more compassionate person. “Being present and being sober for that was a really good decision for this record,” Shook says, sounding legitimately content with the outcome. But before you think she’s all peace and love now, she still has some feelings about the people who are singing similar songs without really living the life.
“It’s so, so fucking frustrating to me to watch a bunch of rich ass motherfuckers playing pop country parading around in skin-tight jeans with their fucking bleached teeth and perfect hair singing about how hard their life is and how they have to drink whiskey every night to cope,” she says. “It’s like, no you don’t! I own this shit, this is mine. Don’t take what’s very real and very important to me and throw it into this cookie-cutter bullshit.”
In her trademark rationalizing way, she’s settled on the realization that there’s nothing she can do about it and it’s not going to change. “It’s enough for me to be able to sing these songs and know that every goddamn night that I’m on the stage singing these songs they’re coming straight from my heart and straight from my life experience,” She says. “It’s good enough for me to know that it’s a genuine, authentic thing.”