Raised in a strict Christian family, singer-songwriter Sarah Shook wasn’t allowed to listen to secular music while growing up. If the music wasn’t Christian or classical, it’s likely she didn’t hear it.
Naturally, that didn’t last.
Once Shook got her own car, she began listening to the radio, and a whole new world opened itself up to her.
“I had this beat-up old Mazda Protégé,” she says via phone from her North Carolina home. She and her backing band, the Disarmers, perform with Thor Platter Band at 8:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 7, at the Beachland Ballroom. “It didn’t have a CD player. I think it might have had a tape deck. It definitely had a radio, and my parents couldn’t be in the car with me all the time. That was my first foray into exploring new music.”
She describes the experience as “pretty jarring.”
“I was 17 or 18 at the time,” she says. “I wasn’t allowed to listen to a lot of music with drums. Hearing some rock ’n’ roll rhythm section where the bass was amped to 11 and the drums were crashing was awesome and exhilarating for me. Most people would think it’s ho-hum because they grew up with that, and it would seem normal to them.”
Despite (or, perhaps, because of) growing up in such a restrictive environment, Shook managed to teach herself to play piano. She also started writing songs when she was about 8 years old.
“Being homeschooled and sheltered, I’m sure all the lyrical content was about Jesus and God,” she says. “When I was 16, a friend from our church lent me a guitar. I spent a lot time outdoors as a teenager. And though I liked piano, I wanted to go outside to write a song on an instrument. To have a standard six-string acoustic was great. That was what I needed. This was before the free YouTube tutorials and the million ways you can teach yourself guitar now. I had one of the giant old-school posters on my wall that had all the chords. I would sit on the floor with my guitar, and that’s how I learned to play.”
After absorbing some old-school country thanks to a boyfriend who had good musical taste, Sarah Shook and the Devil, Shook’s first band, came together in 2010.
“I was dating this guy who had a small but really good collection of all the country greats on vinyl,” Shook says. “Early on, we were sitting on the porch drinking PBRs. He put on Johnny Cash. Immediately, I was like ‘What is this?” It was the kind of music that I had been writing in terms of the song structure and the kinds of chords. It was so wild to know that there was a name for this genre. After that Johnny Cash vinyl moment, we started playing songs together.”
She then recruited Phil Sullivan to play lap steel with her. Next, she asked Eric Peterson, a terrific local player, to sit in on electric guitar for a few gigs. He wound up joining the band too. At that point, the group morphed into the Disarmers.
And if it weren’t for Peterson, the band might still be playing small bars and clubs near its North Carolina home. But Peterson insisted the group make an album.
“I always felt like music was something I did for fun,” says Shook. “Songwriting was catharsis. Playing with my bandmates at local bars was a good way to socialize. I don’t care about fame or celebrity at all. I’m actively against that. When Eric pushed for that, my kneejerk reaction was that I didn’t realize he wanted more out of this than what we were doing. Even at that point, he was with for us for so long that I had to listen to him. I knew we needed to get a record out, and if we wanted to tour more, I knew we had to talk logistics. It all came together over a period of time. I’ll never forget going to shows and taking three vehicles because we didn’t have a band.”
The group released Sidelong in 2015 and followed it up with Years in 2018. Songs such as “New Ways to Fail” and “The Bottle Never Lets Me Down,” both of which can be found on Years, put Shook’s hiccuping vocals up front in the mix and possess a cowpunk punch thanks to Peterson’s gritty guitar work.
“I decided that when I went in to do the tracking for Years that I would be sober and wait to start pounding whiskey until I got home and started thinking of all the mistakes I had probably made,” she says, adding that she’s completely sober now. “[Becoming sober has] helped me get my head on straight in terms of where we’re going as a band and what our version of success means to us.”
Since the group’s first two records provided such an incredible outlet of emotion for Shook, does she have anything left in the tank for the band’s forthcoming third album?
“The thing that’s hardest for me is figuring out how to write songs sober,” she admits. “It was very different when I would sit down to write songs with a whiskey or two. I was uninhibited. My subconscious would put things together in a way that made linear sense. [As I’m writing the next record,] I’m trying to get to that point of mental relaxation.”
Sarah Shook and the Disarmers, Thor Platter Band, 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 7, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $15, beachlandballroom.com
Sign up for Scene’s weekly newsletters to get the latest on Cleveland news, things to do and places to eat delivered right to your inbox.