The Rise of Sarah Shook and the Disarmers

photo: Jillian Clark

They will tell you that women can’t make it in country music these days, and it’s certainly true that it appears to be more difficult than ever. And if you think it’s tough being a woman in country music, try being a woman in country music who is actually making country music, which might put you in the most marginalized category of them all. Add on top of that no significant radio play or a major label behind you, and on the surface an artist like Sarah Shook has little to no chance to make it in the music business.

But despite all of this, Sarah Shook has arrived, and become one of the most unlikely country music success stories over the last couple of years by recording stellar albums that break through the monotony of releases, and can’t be held back by the bulwarks of adversity that bully most independent country music artists.

To understand the rise of Sarah Shook, you first have to go back to the mid 90’s, and a throwback traditional country band called the Two Dollar Pistols. Formed in 1996 around singer and songwriter John Howie Jr. and the music scene swirling around Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the Two Dollar Pistols never received as much widespread recognition as some of the other resurgent throwback bands of the time such as the Ryan Adams-led Whiskeytown or Nashville’s Lower Broadway revivalists BR-549. But they released a well-favored record in 1997 called On Down The Track, and by the next year they were signed to Yep Roc Records.

The coming years would see the Two Dollar Pistols evolve into the go-to neotraditional band of North Carolina, with plenty of national and international implications for those in-the-know looking for the old sound made by new artists. John Howie Jr. became a well-respected singer and songwriter in independent musical circles, and the band cut a 7-song EP with fellow North Carolina-based singer and songwriter Tift Merritt, aptly called The Two Dollar Pistols With Tift Merritt. It was Merritt’s first proper record, and put her on the national database as an emerging name in country and roots music as well.

The Two Dollar Pistols would release multiple records on Yep Roc, starting with the well-received live record called Step Right Up. 2002’s follow up You Ruined Everything, and later Hands Up! remain gems of the early 2000’s neotraditional movement. But like many of those neotraditional bands that started in the late 90’s, the Two Dollar Pistols were not long for the world, and they shortly dissolved sometime after their 2007 record Here Today, Gone Tomorrow.

John Howie Jr.

By this time, John Howie Jr. had been ensconced as a traditional country icon in Chapel Hill. He played for a while in a regional all-star band called The Sweethearts, and eventually formed the band Rosewood Bluff to back him up with Two Dollar Pistols drummer Matt Brown. They released their first album in 2011, and then released Leaving Yesterday in 2013, which received a Two Guns Up review from Saving Country Music, as did the 2014 effort, Everything Except Goodbye.

Despite the positive press around these parts, John Howie Jr. and Rosewood Bluff still remained very much a regional, and underground phenomenon, though well beloved and appreciated by those who’d been clued into the music. In August of 2015, John Howie Jr. was getting ready to release another album called Not Tonight. When reaching out to Saving Country Music to give an initial heads up about the upcoming record, Howie Jr. launched into a description of another project he’d been working on and was clearly passionate about.

“The main reason I’m writing at this point is to let you know about an album I just finished making with a woman named Sarah Shook, recorded at a studio here in NC called Manifold,” Howie emailed on August 5th, 2015. “The album is called ‘Sidelong,’ it’s coming out in October. Upright bass, steel guitar, kind of a mix of Hank Williams/some rockabilly – but certainly not in a corny or retro way – and some REALLY kick ass songs. I’m really proud of the record, it was produced by a guy named Ian Schreier, Grammy-nominated producer for his work on a Roomful of Blues album.”

Sidelong wasn’t to be released on any record label. There was no publicist for the project, or manager behind Sarah Shook at the time. It was a completely self-funded underground endeavor recorded in North Carolina by some people who saw the potential of what Sarah Shook was capable of. The only press Sarah Shook had received up to that point was a feature in the Raleigh/Durham/ Chapel Hill alternative newsweekly called Indy Week, written by Corby Hill.

The Indy Week article went into pretty in-depth detail about Sarah Shook’s past, how she started playing music seriously for the first time in a band called Sarah Shook and the Devil, playing as many as 30 shows in a given year before dissolving in 2013. The feature talked about Sarah’s home-schooled, fundamentalist Christian upbringing, which she of course rebelled against. It talked about how she was a single mom, working bar shifts and playing in bands in between trying to be best mom she could be to her then 8-year-old son.

The article also outed John Howie Jr. as Sarah Shook’s significant other at the time, but most importantly it pointed to the moment when Sarah Shook and the Disarmers morphed from a local/regional punk-infused honky tonk band into something more serious. It was when guitarist Eric Peterson laid the gauntlet down about the future of The Disarmers.

“It was the longest message I’ve ever seen from him,” Shook told Indy Week. “He’s a man of few words.”

Peterson had followed Shook through her previous bands The Devil and The Dirty Hands as her primary guitarist. He’d also previously been a member of the Chapel Hill-based rock band The Kamikazees, notable for being one of the early projects of Dex Romweber who went on to form the Flat Duo Jets—one of Jack White’s primary influences.

In short, the message from Eric Peterson showed both a faith in what Sarah Shook was doing and how Peterson felt it could have implications in country music far beyond Chapel Hill, but also a frustration that Shook wasn’t taking the project more seriously. They needed to record an album, to print up some merch, and make a go of it instead of putzing around Chapel Hill. And so with Eric Peterson on guitar, and John Howie Jr. on drums, Sarah Shook and the Disarmers took the big plunge and recorded Sidelong.

When Saving Country Music received its copy and posted a review on October 30th, 2015, it received similar high praised to John Howie Jr.’s projects with Rosewood Bluff, and readers immediately latched onto the project.

“Who knows what whims govern the exiled ghost of authentic country as it scans the fruited plain looking for souls to possess? But it found Sarah Shook in North Carolina, and her destiny was inescapable,” the review read. “She opens her mouth and a ghostly, smoky yodel is emitted carrying the weight of a thousand troubled and worried spirits crying out in tormented moans about heartache and the resignation to never living up to the expectations of yourself and others. ‘Sidelong’ may find itself in a dark and troubled place much of the time, but it’s good old country music at its heart.”

Unfortunately, neither the Saving Country Music review, nor the detailed feature in North Carolina’s Indy Week were the accelerant to Sarah Shook going national and international, but they did light the spark. Though Shook remained seriously off the radar for most of the country and Americana realm, those who received a copy of Sidelong were singing its praises. Sarah Shook and the Disarmers started to tour when they could, and bided their time, waiting for their big break. Early on, Shook had even sent a pitch to Bloodshot Records to see if they were interested in releasing her music, but it went ignored.

Then came a performance at AmericanaFest in Nashville in late September of 2016 at the well-known Nashville venue 12th and Porter. It was a strangely-curated showcase, with the progressive string band The Accidentals also playing. But the space was packed with notables from the independent music realm, including Bob Boilen, who is the host and creator of NPR’s All Songs Considered and the man behind NPR’s Tiny Desk concerts. Craig Havighurst of Music City Roots and now Americana radio station WMOT was also in attendance. And most importantly, the co-founder of Bloodshot Records, Rob Miller, was in the audience. Despite whatever early apprehension on Sarah Shook, Bloodshot was now hot on her trail. Saving Country Music was also on site, watching it all from the 12th and Porter balcony.

Sarah Shook at AmericanaFest 2016

As the members of The Accidentals were freaking out because the great and powerful Bob Boilen from NPR wanted to meet them after their show, Sarah Shook took the 12th and Porter stage and slayed. In the Americana recap from 2016, Saving Country Music shared, “In an era when mainstream country music has been overrun by bubblegum pop and much of the underground has forgotten about good songwriting, Sarah Shook and her Disarmers are just what is needed to revitalize the dark side of country without compromising the quality of the music.” 

Apparently Rob Miller and Bloodshot Records agreed, and on January 25th, 2017, it was announced that Sarah Shook and the Disarmers had signed with the well-respected grassroots label, famous for bringing insurgent country to the forefront. Bloodshot would be re-releasing Sidelong, which they did on April 28th, 2017, and with the Bloodshot Records stamp of approval all of a sudden the opportunities, attention, and resources of the independent country and roots community began to flow to Shook, helped along by the sincerely infectious nature of Sidelong.

But that album was just the start. Since it was a re-release, some hardcore fans had already heard it, and so the album bubbled instead of blowing up. They say you have your whole life to write your first record, and the test for Sarah Shook and the Disarmers would be with their sophomore effort. At some point between the signing with Bloodshot and the recording of what would be Sarah Shook’s second record Years, the relationship with singer and songwriter turned drummer John Howie Jr. dissolved, and that became part of the fuel for the inspiration and narratives of the second album.

Sarah Shook said in a recent interview that when the relationship was on its last legs, John Howie Jr. at one point said Shook would be “good as gold” if she left him, while his life would go to pieces. This became the title of the opening song of Years, which was released on Bloodshot Records on April 6th, 2018 to positive reception. As an auspicious of a start as Sidelong was for Shook, Years has found a whole other gear of appreciation from country fans looking for true emotion and authenticity. In many people’s conversations about what might be the best album released in country music in 2018, Sarah Shook’s Years often comes up. Dark, real, yet infectious from its keen understanding of melody and the superb work of guitarist Eric Peterson, it’s one of those records that reminds you why you became a fan of music in the first place, country or otherwise.

On June 20th, Sarah Shook and the Disarmers were tapped unexpectedly to play a rescheduled date on Willie Nelson’s Outlaw Fest in Charlotte, North Carolina at the PNC Pavilion. The once rag tag group that was just trying to make the scene in Chapel Hill got to play in front of a capacity crowd of over 19,000 people, and Sarah got the honor of singing with Willie at the end of the show during Willie’s Gospel medley.

Meanwhile John Howie Jr. has finally set a release date for his latest record and first official solo released called Not Tonight—the record he was giving Saving Country Music a heads up about when he first mentioned Sarah Shook in August of 2015, and sidelined due to his Disarmers duties as the band began to blow up. The revamped record will be released September 21st, 2018 via Suah Sounds, and features appearances by members of The Disarmers.

“This album is a step forward from a disconcerting period of time in my life,” Howie says. “In this case, the long, slow dissolution of a relationship. Everything that goes with that is in these songs: loss, loneliness, booze, suspicion, all of it. ‘Not Tonight’ confronts a specific, painful period in my life, and the music is largely sparser, the lyrics more confessional than before. It ends on a relatively high note, but it’s a mighty rough road gettin’ there.”

Just as the relationship of John Howie Jr. and Sarah Shook helped give rise to the original Disarmers sound and story, now that dissolving of the relationship has given rise to songs of heartbreak from both parties. Their loss is the audience’s gain, which is often the way in country music.

But the story of Sarah Shook shouldn’t just be framed through the lens of Howie Jr.’s aid, or guitarist Eric Perterson’s ultimatum, or whatever assistance Saving Country Music, Indie Week, or any other media entity provided, or the eventual help Bloodshot Records lent. Certainly it takes a community of individuals and opportunities to launch a music career, especially considering the odds and usually unfortunate outcomes of such endeavors. But to zoom back three years after the initial release of Shook’s debut album Sidelong, to consider her virtually-improbable story as a single mom and unknown from Chapel Hill, North Carolina making a career out of music, it’s clear validation that she has that certain indefinable something that makes an artist exceptional, and right for their time.

Sarah Shook and the Disarmers are still very much under-the-radar in the grand scheme of things, and have to endure many smelly van rides to low-paying gigs as they continue their ascent. But as far as the ultimate goal of building a sustainable career where a band can support themselves and their families through music, Sarah Shook and the Disarmers have made it. It’s been an improbable three years, especially for a band that is very much a construct of the underground. But as the results of the album Years can attest, validation for hard work and personal perseverance are still possible, regardless of the adversity.