Sarah Shook & the Disarmers w/ Brian Johannesen
The Mill — Tuesday, Oct. 15 at 8 p.m.
Imagine an alternate universe in which Black Flag emerged from the honky-tonks of 1960s Bakersfield instead of the punk scene of late-’70s Los Angeles. That’s the plane of existence inhabited by Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, a fast-rising independent act that melds subversive punk attitude with rugged country sounds.
Shook and her band have ridden the success of two releases on Chicago-based indie Bloodshot Records to become an in-demand act in the Americana and alt-country world, and they bring their brand of twangy thunder to The Mill on Tuesday, Oct. 15, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance and $18 the day of the show.
Shook, based in North Carolina, said she and her band try to deliver a “high-energy” show that leans heavily on Shook’s brash songwriting and vocals, the twangy electric guitar of Eric Peterson and the weepy pedal steel of Phil Sullivan. While those elements sound like the classic Bakersfield formula, many of Shook’s compositions dial up the aggression into punk territory.
“We have some songs that are more country and some that are more punk and a lot of them are somewhere right in the middle,” Shook said in an email interview. “It’s always about the song, like the lyrics and general feeling behind it, that we use the music to really pump some life into it.”
She said she agreed with the old adage that punk rock and country are flip sides of the same damaged coin. Both genres traditionally tap into emotional honesty and uncluttered structures, qualities that abound in Shook’s songs.
Sarah Shook & the Disarmers’ two full-length albums on Bloodshot — 2017’s Sidelong and 2018’s Years — both feature a number of whiskey-bent honky-tonkers, with a few waltz-timed tearjerkers thrown in for contrast. Among the highlights from the earlier album is “Dwight Yoakam,” sung from the perspective of a heartbroken man who gave his ex “every last one of my good years” before she ran off with a country singer who “don’t walk around like he’s broken.”
Years, cut from similar cloth, showcases greater control and nuance in Shook’s vocal delivery as well as a heavier emphasis on dynamics in the arrangements and songwriting. Album opener “Good As Gold” examines the power dynamics of a relationship on the verge of collapse. The narrator of the song is less scared of losing their lover as they are of losing their own identity in a painful breakup. “I’m afraid of losing, losing everything to you,” Shook sings. “My heart, my pride, a wreck inside, nothing on this jukebox except them blues.”
Sarah Shook & the Disarmers spent much 2019 on tour and played a total of four shows in mid-September for AmericanaFest, a sprawling music festival and conference spearheaded by the Americana Music Association in Nashville. Shook described the AmericanaFest shows as “packed and rowdy,” which seems like the optimal environment in which to experience her music.
“This was a really good year for us, about 150 days on the road, lots of packed out clubs and folks singing along word for word,” she said. “We’ve come a long way the last couple years and it’s a good feeling for sure.”