North Carolina-based singer and songwriter embraces flaws on the excellent 'Sidelong'
Sarah Shook doesn't always paint a pretty picture on Sidelong (Bloodshot), her breakout 2017 album recorded alongside her band of two-plus years, the Disarmers. Indeed, when the New York-born, North Carolina-based musician cuts open a vein on “Fuck Up,” singing, “God never makes mistakes; he just makes fuck ups,” the line comes on as though it were directed squarely in the mirror.
Throughout Sidelong, the characters in Shook's songs navigate life's various pitfalls, attempting to make amends for past indiscretions (“Make It Up to Mama”), struggling to assign blame in failed relationships (“I can't decide which one of us will be the nail in this here coffin,” she sings on “The Nail”) and frequently attempting to fill the growing void with alcohol. “There's a hole in my heart ain't nothin' here can fill,” Shook warbles on the fresh-scabbed “Heal Me.” “But I sure keep hopin' the whiskey will.”
“Honesty is hard to come by in this industry in many ways, and honesty in songwriting is no exception to that,” Shook said in an email interview (the musician joins the Disarmers in concert at Ace of Cups on Wednesday, July 19).“People write to make themselves appear better, stronger [or] more appealing in every way imaginable, and it just ain't honest. I'm not perfect.I'm deeply flawed in many ways. Do I work on myself every damn day to get better and improve myself?I do.But that ain't a pass to act like I'm already there yet.”
In addition to these imperfections, Shook's characters are united by a resilience the singer traces to childhood — “I think my mom would refer to it as stubbornness but I see it [as] more of a tenacity and strength of spirit,” she said — never betraying a sense that life has broken them irrevocably. As the album closes, Shook finds herself behind the wheel of her car, smoking cigarettes and flicking ash that dissipates in the wind along with any accumulated regrets, heartbreaks or bad memories. “I'm driving down this highway and I'm doing mighty well,” she sings atop strident acoustic guitar. “Staying in-between the lines as best as I can tell.”
Growing up, Shook became accustomed to life on the road, with the family logging time in Raleigh, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and upstate New York. “Moving over and over again, never feeling comfortable or secure committing to a group of friends or settling into a home, goodbye always looming over my head, it made for a very lonely, very wary childhood,” said Shook, who was born to a stay-at-home mother and a house-painter father and taught herself to play guitar at age 16, due in part to a desire to write songs outside, which wasn't possible on her first instrument, the far-less-portable piano.
It wasn't until the musician settled in Chatham County, North Carolina in 2007 that she finally felt like she could kick her feet up.
“It was the first place I got to choose to live, [and] the first place I felt I could put down roots and feel confident letting them grow deep and wild,” said Shook, who, as a self-described atheist, bisexual vegan, has started to exhibit a similar, kudzu-like growth within a country music genre that has long been the domain of largely heterosexual white men.
“I haven't seen any backlash for being honest about who I am and what is important to me. …I get that I'm a bit of a freak, but I think I'm a pretty approachable weirdo,” Shook said. “I like shaking things up in general. And I love bringing unexpected groups of people together.”