Sarah Shook Talks Positive Change in Country Music and Community

Sarah Shook had the makings of an artist from an early age. By 9 years old it wasn't uncommon to see her writing songs, poems and short stories that would become the precursors to the country music she and her backing band, The Disarmers, play around the world. She even taught herself how to play the piano to put the words she wrote to music. But if she had been asked to categorize the genre of the songs she was creating at the time, she wouldn't have been able to answer.

"I had a really sheltered upbringing. Me and my sisters were not allowed to listen to any music that wasn't religious worship music or classical. That was basically all we were exposed to," Shook said. "In my teens when I picked up guitar, I was writing country songs and I didn't know how to classify it as that."

Eventually, when Shook was introduced by a now ex-boyfriend to the music of some country greats like Charley Pryde, Buck Owens and Hank Williams, she would develop her own style that would evolve into content like the band's 2018 album "Years." In fact, the North Carolina-based band is now in the midst of a world tour to promote the album, and their next Michigan stop is at Ferndale's own Otus Supply on Thursday, Aug. 23 and then to Bay City's BeMo's Bar on Aug. 24.

Only released last spring, "Years" has already garnered positive attention from the likes of The New York Times, Rolling Stone Country and the Chicago Tribune. Not only does the four-piece group lay down traditional country sound on the album, but it folds in a unique, rebellious edge that's a clear nod to some of Shook's other genre favorites like punk, alternative and garage rock. When asked why Shook decided to focus on country music instead of another style, the answer was simple: "It chose me."

"The first country music that I ever heard was Johnny Cash's version of 'Long Black Veil,' and as soon as it started playing it was just like this light went off in my brain like, 'Oh my God. This is what I've been doing the whole time! What is this?'" she said. "It was so exciting and mind-blowing just to discover this entire genre has been around forever, and then to sort of learn the ropes of where country music stands at this point in time."

And currently, country music seems to be experiencing a surge of relatively new artists who are putting a fresh take on classic country styles while staying true to the genre's roots. Shook is certainly a part of this trend, and as an openly pansexual country artist as well as an avid activist for LGBTQ rights, she's in many ways a trailblazer for increased inclusion in the genre.

For instance, in the tracks where Shook is singing to or about an ex-lover, her song lyrics rarely specify the gender of the song's focus. A subtle detail, but definitely one that makes many of her love songs universal. So far, Shook hasn't experienced any discrimination regarding her sexual orientation, and she said that that might be because of her intentional, easygoing approach on the topic.

"When I first started playing shows and things started really taking off I wanted it to be really abundantly clear that this is who I am, and that it's a part of my identity that is important to me," Shook said. "But I've always presented that in a way that's non-combative. Like, 'Hey, we're actually everywhere out here. We're the people that serve your food and help you out at the bank. We're everywhere and it's OK (laughs). We're not hurting anybody.'"

And over the course of the decade or so that Shook has been playing shows both as Sarah Shook & the Disarmers and with other bands, she said that she's witnessed a positive, palpable change in the attitudes of country music fans toward the LGBTQ community.

"I've actually had some really interesting things happen just based on the way that I present myself, which is just as a country artist. I'm out here doing my thing, I'm pansexual, I'm non-monogamous, and I actually read a comment on one of our articles one time and this guy literally said, 'I'm a homophobic cattle farmer from blah blah blah, but when I see her and I listen to her music she's just a country kid wearing a backwards hat running around the woods. What's not to love?'" Shook said. "So, (it's) changing peoples' minds through just being yourself and having a lot of patience (laughs). It took me a lot of time and I had a lot of hard lessons to learn and figure out. Especially because I was raised in a very conservative Christian household."

It certainly wasn't easy for Shook when she came out to her parents initially, but she said that they've come a long way toward becoming fully accepting of the LGBTQ community and her sexuality. And even if sometimes they still slip up, Shook is unafraid to do her part to shine a light on a different, more positive perspective.

"When the infamous bathroom bill, House Bill 2, passed here in North Carolina I saw my mom made some sort of ignorant Facebook post about it. And so, I got a little heated, but I waited until I calmed down and sent her a message," Shook said. "I said, 'Mom, I'm not even going to send you a long message here, all I'm going to do is send you three pictures and I want you to tell me which bathroom this person belongs in.' So, I sent her three pictures of trans women and she said that they all belong in the women's bathroom and I said, 'Yeah, mom. They're women.' So, then I sent her three pictures of trans men and I asked her and she said, 'The men's room.' That simple, brief conversation and it clicked for her."

And even beyond changing her parents' minds, Shook has had a hand in spreading acceptance in her home of Chapel Hill. She is the co-founder of Manifest, a two-night music festival that ensures every band on the lineup has at least one "woman, trans or non-binary person." She said she got the idea when working at a local venue.
"And I just felt like every night that I worked it was just all cis, straight, white dudes on stage every night," Shook said. "A lot of it was really good music, a lot of it was really shitty, but it was just a glaring omission of other people that have these same talents and skills."

That's when Shook and her friend Erika Libero put on the festival which is now going strong in its third year. Shook's confident approach to LGBTQ activism can at least partially be attributed to her own self-acceptance. She said that once she finally came to understand her own sexuality it informed her art in a positive, thoughtful way.

"Being really in-tune with yourself and being aware of your own strengths and weaknesses as an artist definitely makes for more genuine, honest art," Shook said. "And yeah, being able to put myself in a partner's shoes or ex-partner's shoes I think is really important. Because when a relationship is failing, it's never really one person's fault entirely. It's compounded and complicated and everyone would definitely benefit from trying to be more empathetic to the plights of other people, and sticking up for yourself when bullshit is what's being handed to you."

And fans of Sarah Shook & the Disarmers can get excited to expect more of Shook's unyielding honesty on new upcoming releases starting with a 7-inch vinyl set to come out sometime this fall.

"When we recorded 'Years' it was originally 12 tracks and we heard from our record label that the fidelity of the vinyl would be compromised because it was too long," she said. "So, we ended up basically having to cut two songs, but they were finished, mixed, mastered, ready to go. We decided to take those two songs and release a 7-inch and have talked with our agent about setting aside downtime for us to start working on new material for the next record. Hopefully, with any luck, I'd like to continue this one-two punch path that we're on and crank out the third album next year."

Sarah Shook & the Disarmers will be at Otus Supply in Ferndale on Thursday, Aug. 23 and at Bay City's BeMo's Bar on Friday, Aug. 24.