Sarah Shook and the Disarmers: attitude with a twang

James Sullivan, Boston Globe


May 9, 2024

Sarah Shook and the Disarmers: attitude with a twang

By James Sullivan Globe correspondent,Updated May 9, 2024, 4:53 p.m.

Singer-guitarist River Shook of Sarah Shook and the Disarmers, who headline The Cut in Gloucester Friday night.Singer-guitarist River Shook of Sarah Shook and the Disarmers, who headline The Cut in Gloucester Friday night.JILLIAN CLARK

There’s an especially descriptive word that best characterizes the music of Sarah Shook and the Disarmers. According to our friends at Merriam-Webster, this slang term means “ready to cause or get into trouble,” or, alternately, “of formidable strength or skill.”

“Applying the word ‘badass’ to the songs is a huge compliment, and I’ll take that,” says singer-guitarist River Shook, who uses they/them pronouns. “I will say, though, the songs wouldn’t be as badass without the band. I wrote them myself, so I know what they sound like without the band.”

Shook laughs. Deep introversion and a fundamentalist upbringing have given the singer an outsider’s perspective that is no stage act. If that comes across as a devil-may-care attitude, well, then so be it.

The Disarmers, who headline Friday at The Cut in Gloucester, have been building a reputation since 2015, with the release of their sharp-tongued, sure-footed debut album, “Sidelong.” On “Revelations,” their fourth full-length, Shook, 38, remains as defiant as ever.

“You don’t get to tell me what’s real,” Shook sings in their trademark backwoods twang. “You don’t get to tell me how to feel.”

Shook, whose birth name was Sarah, adopted the symbolic name River a few years ago after becoming sober and undergoing therapy. Identifying as nonbinary, raising a 17-year-old son from an ill-fated early marriage, they say they’re more comfortable in their own skin now than ever before.

What’s more, the singer’s parents, who home-schooled their children in a strict religious household in Rochester, N.Y., have come around.

“They have been growing and evolving as people for a long time,” says Shook, who is atheistic. “They get my pronouns right about 50 percent of the time, which is all you can ask for. They’re a different generation.”

Shook, who has been playing piano since age 9, first picked up an acoustic guitar at 15. Forbidden to listen to anything other than classical and worship music — “even Christian contemporary bands at the time, like Jars of Clay and DC Talk, were way too much for my parents” — the teenager learned to play by studying a poster of guitar chords.

Several years later, following a move to North Carolina, Shook had a brief relationship with a man who had a well-curated collection of country classics — Loretta Lynn, Charley Pride, Wanda Jackson’s “Country!” album. The music sounded instantly familiar, a lot like the songs Shook had been writing privately, with no point of reference. (As the songwriter Harlan Howard famously put it, country music is “three chords and the truth.”)

That ex-boyfriend became the first bass player in Sarah Shook & the Devil, the songwriter’s first band. They played the local haunts around Chatham County, N.C., for free Pabst Blue Ribbons, Shook says. “It was a pass-the-bucket kind of thing, a low-stakes operation.”

Listeners quickly sat up and took notice, but Shook accepted their praise with some skepticism.

“I feel like when you’re in an environment that close-knit, you’re suspicious of anyone who tells you you’re worth a damn,” they say with another laugh.

The Disarmers’ 2015 debut showcased the band’s cowpoke spirit (“The Nail”) and Shook’s intrinsic knack for wordplay (“Nothin’ Feels Right But Doin’ Wrong”). Their follow-up, 2018′s “Years,” picked up where the first album left off.

“I need this [expletive] like I need another hole in my head,” Shook sang on the deceptively cheerful-sounding “New Ways to Fail.” The songwriter credits their father for the lyric.

“My dad used to say that once a month, when he was paying bills,” Shook explains. “I definitely got that aspect of humor from my dad’s side of the family. I was born in western New York, but I come from a long line of Southerners. One of the things I do love about the South — the prevailing sense of humor is very self-deprecating.

“Not to be too on the nose, but it’s very disarming.” Another laugh.

For their third album, “Nightroamer” (2022), the band traveled to Los Angeles to record with Pete Anderson, longtime sideman to Dwight Yoakam (whose name provided the title to a track on “Sidelong”). In hindsight, Shook says, it was a worthy experiment that veered a little off track.

“He was very respectful of my opinions,” Shook recalls. “There was never any drama. We flew across the country to work with this stranger, and you never know what you’re getting into.”

Regrouping, Shook assumed production duties for “Revelations.” “I’ve been in the state that I’m in since the day of my birth,” they sing on the title track.

Elsewhere, Shook gets even, gleefully so, with an unidentified nemesis on an explicit song with a title that rhymes, aptly, with “Bloodsucker.”

By now, the singer is the only remaining original member of the Disarmers. Drummer Jack Foster has been with the band for three years, and guitarist Blake Tallent (who also plays in Shook’s indie-rock side project, Mightmare) is approaching his two-year anniversary. Since recording the new album, the band has added bassist Mason Thomas and pedal steel player Evan Phillips.

The swinging door of sidekicks proves there are plenty of musicians who are eager to imbibe some of the Disarmers’ attitude.

“I feel like people think I’m cooler than I think I am,” Shook says.

But if Shook comes across as a badass in song, sobriety was a daunting challenge.

“At first I think I was really stressed about not being able to write a song,” they say. “I had to catch myself logically, like, ‘Dude, you were writing songs on piano when you were 9 years old, and you were not throwing back double whiskeys!’”

Perhaps more difficult was getting onstage without any liquid courage.

“By the time I decided to get sober,” Shook says, “I was ready to be scared for however long it took to get through that . . . and get on the other side of it.

“I’m still a crotchety old man,” they say with one final chuckle. “I’d rather be on my porch than onstage, but I’m over the hump.”


With Nicolette and the Nobodies. At The Cut, Gloucester. May 10 at 7:30 p.m. $25. 978-515-0000,

Written by James Sullivan for The Boston Globe