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From Cowpunk to Sarah Shook

The early '80s subgenre, cowpunk, defied genre purism and redefined authenticity. That paved the way for today's hottest alt-country hero, Sarah Shook.

North Carolina band Sarah Shook and the Disarmers have set country music’s bucket with a hole in it on fire and kicked it with Shook’s queer backspin all the way up the charts. The newly released Years reached #1 on Amazon’s Alt-Country and Americana Bestsellers List, while last year’s debut Sidelong reclines at #32. Country, country rock, alt-country, Americana, insurgent country, outlaw country, honky tonk, rockabilly, roots music — that they’ve been tagged so variously by Amazon, Bandcamp, Spotify, etc., may say more about online commodification than the band’s intentions. Genre is telling, nonetheless, not only as a way to suggest a music’s style but also as a cultural frame for it, even as a mode of cultural affiliation.

More and more people who grew up hating — or at least feeling alienated by — country music at large, myself included, later come to be non-mainstream country loyalists, whether we choose to call it alt-country or Americana, etc. One outdated yet abiding genre category that’s haunting references to Shook’s band is country-punk or “cowpunk”. As if toeing a fault line, the stagger from DIY cowpunk of the early-’80s to Shook’s recent success shows the vitality that may quake the ground where certain genres overlap.

Chapel Hill-based culture magazine Indy Week, back in 2015, deemed Shook “equal parts country outlaw and street punk”. Her sound is “a sneering fusion of punk-rock autonomy and say-it-like-it-is country from the classic era,” according to Rolling Stone in 2016. In 2018, PopMatters says she “brings a pissed-punk attitude to her honky-tonk songs” and a Country Standard Time review calls it “blend[ing] classic country with a contemporary cowpunk swagger”. It gets almost embarrassing in No Depression, beloved journal of roots music, opening its gushy article on Shook: “If the essence of punk is freedom of spirit then Shook is perhaps the greatest punk of our age.” Shook herself claims John Lydon of the Sex Pistols to be her “spirit animal”; other primary influences include Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Wanda Jackson.

This is hardly new, however, so declaring Shook and the Disarmers “breakout” for cross-pollinating country and punk, or more broadly for rawness, realness, and being antiestablishment, is to dismiss the authenticity-redefining cowpunk legacy. An article in Noisey goes so far as to claim, unsupported, that cowpunk never had anyone as “bona fide” as Shook, whatever that means. Shook and her band deserve high praise on their own merits, to be sure, but first a closer look at cowpunk and the original pioneers of country-punk hybridity.

Cowpunk emerged not from the Deep South or the Midwest, as one might imagine, but from the UK and California. Two of the bands to most inform the subgenre, the Mekons and X, started out punk. Formed by art students in Leeds in 1977, the Mekons were die-hard DIY, a “no experience required” collective that emphasized no single front-person. X formed in 1978 and epitomized a burgeoning L.A. punk scene predisposed to absorbing rock, country, blues, and Latin music. As reported in a 1984 article in The New York Times: In recent years, California punk and new wave bands like X had been telling interviewers that they were listening to classic country found at used record stores. In turn the bands infused classic country, and sometimes other roots music like blues and folk, into their already developed sounds. Cowpunk had become the catchall category for these uncanny-to-the-ear experiments with genre.

“Pretty soon the three chords of country and the three chords of punk became blurred,” says Mekons’ member Tom Greenhalgh in a article celebrating their 1985 album Fear and Whiskey as quintessential cowpunk, arguably the first alt-country album. A collision of traditional and unorthodox, melodic and disharmonic, spoken and warble-belted, it’s utterly alien yet dirt-organic at the same time. Cowpunk served the Mekons more like an artist’s palate than a blended set of genre conventions, exploding over the next decades into an impressive discography for the band and its individual members too.

Competing with Fear and Whiskey for first alt-country album is Poor Little Critter on the Road (also 1985) by The Knitters, a side-project band comprised of members of X and The Blasters. Poor Little Critter on the Road is even more country than the countriest songs on X’s most cowpunk effort to date, Under the Big Black Sun (1982), which includes a swinging country torch song “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes” and the tavern-rocking “The Have Nots.” Poor Little Critter unabashedly blends X-penned originals and songs by or associated with Merle Haggard, Leadbelly, Johnny Cash, The Everly Brothers, and The Carter Sisters.

The early ’80s sees a wave of other phenomenal artists channeling cowpunk in surprisingly diverse ways. Gonzo-audacious rock critic Lester Bangs, fired from Rolling Stone, teamed up with Austin-based The Delinquents to record their 1981 one-off Jook Savages on the Brazos. It’s an acidly humorous anti-masterpiece for which country and punk blend like the wild but limber swings of a drunken fistfight, case in point being “Life Is Not Worth Living (But Suicide Is a Waste of Time)”. Also from Austin, Rank and File featured now famous alt-country pioneer Alejandro Escovedo’s Johnny Cash-like guitar work. Jason and the Scorchers formed in Nashville to play country-rock with punk-rock determination, releasing their one hit “Absolutely Sweet Maria” (a Bob Dylan cover) in 1984. Other bands pushing the genre’s perimeters are the Hickoids, the Beat Farmers and, from L.A., the Long Ryders.

The most action, really, is in the L.A. music scene. Green on Red merge cowpunk and psychedelia-inspired art rock. Los Lobos bring Latin rhythms and a Mexican-American perspective to the genre. Wall of Voodoo release two visionary albums, partly informed by Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western scores. They hit it MTV-big with the unforgettable single “Mexican Radio”. Tex and the Horseheads combine deathrock and a bluesy cowpunk, with the deep raucous voice of Texacala Jones matched only by her goth-garish stage presence; their sophomore release was produced by X’s John Doe. Blood on the Saddle takes its name from singing cowboy Tex Ritter’s song that also serves as opener on their 1984 debut. The Sex Pistols inspired Mike Ness to form Social Distortion in the late ’70s and they came around to cowpunk by the late ’80s, their most successful period, as cowpunk faded and “alternative country” rounded the bend.

The late ’80s is also when k.d. lang and her band the Reclines materialized from Canada, with lariat in full swing. An out lesbian, Lang’s cut-off cowboy boots, spiked black hair, and “torch and twang” vocals made her the cowpunk era’s last new phenomenon. She quickly left behind the cowpunk element for more euphonic country and went on to win a 1993 Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal.

To get a sense of the breadth of cowpunk, consider two versions of the Depression-era classic “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” by legendary cowboy composer Bob Nolan. First there’s one of the fewer bands to fuse new wave and country-western, Boston-based Rubber Rodeo. They pay homage to Ennio Morricone, like Wall of Voodoo, but create a splashy, postmodern fantasy of the cowboy West more like the UK’s Yip Yip Coyote. Vocalist Trish Milliken nurtures a darker mood for covers of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight”, but kitschy “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” is a line-danceable ditty with whistling and cowbell. Released the same year, 1982, The Meat Puppets’ version of “Tumbling Tumblweeds” is a belligerent blues-hardcore embodiment of cowpunk, warped to the point of apocalypse. The entire self-titled debut album, including a cover of Doc Watson’s “Walking Boss,” is a relentless assault, like some country punkenstein run amok. The sound is not only authentic but spontaneous as the band members were tripping on LSD throughout the album’s three-day recording session.

It is this diversity of styles beyond punk proper that, for some, made the category cowpunk suspect, at least misleading. I admit I’d originally reduced cowpunk to the most obvious punk-country combinations. At any rate, cowpunk as a term hit home for me because, when I was a postpunk-era teen discovering music, I was surrounded by actual cows. I could see cows out of our trailer’s kitchen window, grazing in pasture beyond the barbed wire fence surrounding my grandma’s yard. In all black (of course), I walked among these cows listening to my boombox, enacting what seemed a kind of rural sacrilege by blaring the Violent Femmes’ insubordinate “Kiss Off” and “Old Mother Reagan” or the murder ballad “Country Death Song”. The Violent Femmes, cowpunk exemplar, were discovered in 1981 busking on a Milwaukee street corner by none other than the Pretenders. Their first two albums, released in 1983 and 1984, were born classics, possessed of such WTF immediacy that they managed to grip mainstream awareness, selling a few million records.

What’s more, for me, their cowpunk was sexually ambiguous. Regardless of how they identified individually, the Violent Femmes — in band name and in lead singer Gordon Gano’s lyrics — presented a queerness that captivated me. The classic “Blister in the Sun” refers to a shaky relationship with a girlfriend yet an ungendered third party, “the one with big hands”, is really the one for the singer anyway. In the racially and religiously outrageous “Black Girls”, the singer considers liking black girls more than white girls only to be distracted by “a little faggot white boy… so queer and quiet.” He could have been singing about me. The gender-neutral “Good Friend” seems a potential bromance while in “I Held Her in My Arms”, Gano sings “I was with a girl but it felt like I was with a boy.”

Fixated on these ambiguities, when someone asked me dismissively, “But aren’t the Violent Femmes country?”, I balked without thinking. No longer, though, could I qualify the two traditional-sounding country hymns on Hallowed Ground as mere parody. They are too solidly and joyfully played to be parody; I came to enjoy singing along to them in a helplessly non-mocking way. Come to find out, Gano was raised in the Baptist church, his father a preacher, but Gano was also inspired by sexually ambiguous rockers like the Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, and the B-52’s. I had so associated country music with a value system that rejected me as a queer person that any music I might be able to identify with, regardless of its sound, surely couldn’t actually be country. Right? “It’s cowpunk,” I’d insist.

Cowpunk, therefore, constituted my first struggle to figure out what genre meant, to rethink the relationship between sound or style and its cultural framework. I wasn’t alone, though reasons vary — including basic snobbery. In several of the cowpunk-related articles and blog reflections I found, the authors admit to initially hating country music, offering lines like “Back in the ’80s, as narrow-minded music fans will, I disavowed all country music.” Even the original cowpunk bands were inspired not by mainstream country but classic country, a more authentic-sounding music but also historically distant enough to be non-mainstream by default — experienced through the haze of time.

Genre hybridity was hardly uncommon, just not so conflicted. Country-pop crossovers ruled the radio: Bonnie Tyler’s “It’s a Heartache” (1978), Eddie Rabbit’s “I Love a Rainy Night” (1980), and the duet “Islands in the Stream” by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton (1983). It’s presumed that punk rejected pop and then cowpunk came along to reject country-pop. Already prospering, throughout the ’70s, was country rock and southern-fried rock, with Gram Parsons and Greg Allman leading the way. Psychobilly blended punk and rockabilly, giving us the Cramps in the early ’80s and Mojo Nixon in the late ’80s. Folk music, too, drew from punk and new wave, if in subtler ways: L.A. punk guitarist Phranc became the satiric “All-American Jewish lesbian folksinger”, for example, and Britain’s Fad Gadget shifted profoundly from avant-garde electronic to folk. In a sweeping way, by breaking away from punk purism, the post-punk era was all about hybridity. Goth rock, coldwave, no wave aka mutant disco, electropunk, industrial, and related subgenres all absorbed aspects of punk, like its DIY spirit, sense of immediacy, or nonconformist posture.

All these genres overlapping yet none create the friction of cowpunk during the increasingly conservative Reagan era, an ideological tension anticipated, perhaps, by the passing alliance between counterculture folk (e.g., the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band) and country music in the Vietnam era. According to the 2017 Rolling Stone article “X Look Back on 40 Years of Iconoclasm” the band came into their own in the early ’80s as they “moved away from punk’s rigidity” into cowpunk and “embraced oppositional politics and self-reflective lyrics.” Their Reagan-lamenting song “The New World”, recorded as both X and The Knitters, keeps returning to the lines: “It was better before they voted for What’s-His-Name. This was supposed to be the new world.”

Before returning to Shook’s own country-punk hybridity, it seems important to acknowledge the experiences of women pioneers in cowpunk. The music industry continues to be “dude city”, according to Shook. This is why she’s always ready to show alliance with women, particularly working-class women. Shook and her partner in activism Erika Libero were awarded a 2016 Indy Arts award in Chapel Hill for founding a music fest with a central objective to support women artists, transwomen-inclusive.

The most recognized cowpunk contributor who happens to be a woman is surely Exene Cervenka. In X, Cervenka shared writing credits and lead vocals with John Doe, helping to establish a genre that established them as music legends. Cervenka and country’s Tammy Wynette were two major influences on Maria McKee of the L.A. band Lone Justice. McKee, along with Hope Nicholls of Fetchin Bones, are cowpunk pioneers and cowpunk’s greatest should-have-beens.

Whether banshee or balladeer, Maria Mckee sounds as real as a church revival inside a honkytonk, and her stage presence is like a prairie angel on fire. She seizes your ear, kicks your ass, and wins your heart all at the same time, rather like Shook but with that added shot of gospel. In 1983, a full-fledged prodigy at 18-years-old Mckee, with her band Lone Justice, debuted at L.A.’s venerable Club Lingerie, thereafter gaining the esteem of Dolly Parton and X who attended their shows, of major labels that started a bidding war to sign them, and of Rolling Stone that deemed them a band to watch (as they deemed Shook an artist to know). Lone Justice’s first recordings were direct to two-track tape with no overdubs, tightly packed throwdowns channeling the play-it-harder-and-sing-it-rawer jam of their live shows. These heartbreakingly vaulted tracks, released at last in 2014, also exhibit McKee’s gender flexibility, taking on male perspectives in “Working Man Blues” and “Cottonbelt”. She also rocked CCR’s “Fortunate Son” in live shows.

Within a year, Lone Justice recorded their official debut, Lone Justice, for Geffen Records, a critical if not financial success. It’s thrilling cowpunk, especially the Tom Petty song “Ways to Be Wicked”, yet even as the songs are longer or roomier, they also seem contained, curated, and “fussed over”, as a PopMatters review puts it. Having survived the first album with only admittedly naïve McKee intact, Lone Justice reformulated and their second Geffen album was slicker yet, producing the radio-friendly semi-hit “Shelter”, a lovely ballad but a ghost of the Lone Justice that should have been. This corporate cradle-robbing and smothering of talent is a tragedy. “She wanted to be Patsy Cline and Patti Smith,” quips a No Depression review of a Lone Justice retrospective, “but they had turned her into Patty Smyth.”

Shook’s fellow North Carolinian, Hope Nicholls, served as vocalist for cowpunk band Fetchin Bones, inspired to form in 1983 by southern DIY bands like The B-52’s and Pylon. A regional culture magazine in 2017 reckoned Nicholls “coolest person in Charlotte”, where she and her husband, Fetchin Bones guitarist Aaron Pitkin, not only helped to establish a music scene but also continued to play in it over the years in a series of exhilarating bands (Sugarsmack, Snagglepuss, It’s Snakes). Like Lone Justice, Fetchin Bones was “a band that must be seen live for a full grasp of their eclectic frenzy,” according to Trouser Press; unlike Lone Justice, thankfully, Fetchin Bones found a producer for their first two albums who “admirably translates the group’s wild-eyed persona to vinyl.” If there existed a trophy for unsung cowpunk tour de force, I’d award it to Fetchin Bones’ second album Bad Pumpkin from 1986, a more focused and developed album than their joyfully eccentric but compilation-like debut Cabin Flounder (1985).

The anonymous punk chick on the Bad Pumpkin cover accurately conveys what listeners are in for, leaning against a graffitied convertible, smoking her cigarette with an empty beer can on the concrete nearby. As well, the album opener “Leaning on the Horn” could be a band motto. At this point a tight quartet of pungently layered guitars, torrential drums, and Nicholls’ big-mouthed hell-yeah vocals, Fetchin Bones nails every song — and in ways varied enough to show their agility. Mosh-worthy barnburners like the first track and “Bed of Seems” alternate with the atmospheric slow-burn “Half Past a Monkey’s Ass,” a galloping instrumental “Chitty Chitty”, and the bass-meted drunkard’s fable “Wine”, the album’s pinnacle even if set in a gutter. Nicholls’ lyrics are plain speech humorous yet poetically curious too (she’d earned an English Lit degree). Regrettably Bad Pumpkin has been long forsaken, never making it to CD, it seems, though available now as an MP3 via digital music services like Spotify.

Nicholls has speculated that Fetchin Bones might have hit it big if they’d moved to New York City or L.A., not that music industry success is their gold standard — and not that being in L.A. guaranteed Lone Justice the success for which they seemed destined.

Sarah Shook and the Disarmers took their contented time playing around Chapel Hill, which suited Shook’s development and her life as a working-class single mother. A cornerstone of the band’s history, as with the Mekons back in the late ’70s, is Shook’s resistance to sign away her band’s independence to a label. Her original band lineup, called Sarah Shook & the Devil, released their one album Seven on their own, as did the Disarmers with their debut Sidelong in 2015. Nevertheless, what lit a fuse nationally for the band was signing with Bloodshot Records in 2017, which gave Sidelong a wider, more promoted reissue and a touring schedule to match.

Based in Chicago, Bloodshot embodies the alt-country renaissance of the ’00s and ’10s. Alongside era-defining acts like Neko Case, Robbie Fulks, Freakwater, and Lydia Loveless, the independent label has released new albums by X’s Exene Cervenka and Mekons members Jon Langford and Sally Timms. Cowpunk didn’t die, then; it gave way to more discreetly named categories. The mid-’90s saw the rise of categorical terms like alternative country, an obvious parallel to alternative rock, as well as Americana, roots music, insurgent country, etc. Freshly launched in 1995, music magazine No Depression dedicated itself to alt-country with a flippant “whatever the hell that is” qualifier. Now it’s more respectably subtitled The Journal of Roots Music. Bloodshot’s first release, in 1994, was titled For a Life of Sin: A Compilation of Insurgent Chicago Country. Shook’s country music has been tagged insurgent, also outlaw country.

In the honkytonk setting of the Disarmers, Shook’s voice shows a lowdown kind of high lonesome emotiveness that brings to mind the hard-singing styles of country music pioneers Rose Maddox and Hazel Dickens. You listen to their singing as if being straight-talked to, but you hear their singing as if your body is being pulled downriver by an urgent current. With Shook’s own hollow-body Gretsch Synchromatic guitar, veteran indie rockers Eric Peterson on electric or baritone guitars and John Howie on drums, Phil Sullivan on steel guitars, and Jason Hedrick — later Aaron Olivia — on bass, the band is at all times ready for stomping and sorrow, sometimes even sorrowful stomping. It was the addition of Howie’s drums that jumpstarted the band’s moseying outlaw sound as The Devil. “It instantly got a little bit darker,” Shook told Women in Rock. Chapel Hill’s Indy Week observed: “Howie’s drumming matches, even enables, Shook’s punk-rock insistence.”

“A twelver in and doing shots,” Shook sings of her favorite pastime. Her whiskey-soaked lyrics beguile and subvert. They beguile through plain country speech like “Get your ass outside and dig a hole”, so real it flashes me back to my redneck dad startling me awake way too early in the morning with, “Get your duds on, son, gotta dig that ditch!” Tough as Shook seems, reckless as she claims to be, she admits in “Fuck Up” that she’s lousy in a fistfight even when she has a knife, while in “Heartache in Hell” she confesses how she’d “give anything I possess to drown even a little less, but I ain’t cut out for it.” Such nuanced turns of phrase make for her cleverest lines across her albums.

There’s also cleverness in how the words are laid down as melody, upped by what a teacher and writer of poetry (like myself) may cite as alliteration, slant or internal rhyme, etc. A touch of extra rhyme inside the line tightens the chorus of “Good as Gold” with extra snap: “It won’t be long ’til the wrong song comes on at the right time.” On the other hand, slant rhymes like standards/candor both freshen up and loosen up the intro verse to “New Ways to Fail”. “Lesson” alternates between rhythms clipped (“Steel traps and throwbacks, I try to trace my tracks — hope you do too”) and rushing (“I’m gonna learn me my lesson and move on; I’m gonna keep on lovin’ ’til the lovin’s gone”). As for the kick-ass lament “The Bottle Never Lets Me Down”, guitar jabs compel the chorus’s quick-coming rhymes like the unraveling of a heart tightly wound.

What proves Shook subversive as a songwriter is her gender and sexual flexibility. Like Maria McKee, Shook takes on male perspectives readily. “Good as Gold” is a breakup song from her ex-boyfriend’s point of view. “Damned if I Do, Damned if I Don’t” flips the dynamic in Loretta Lynn’s “Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin'”. The bad boy’s plea “Make It Up to Mama” is replete with a mother-heart tattoo. Her gender-crossing can be blurry, however, as Shook claims “The Bottle Never Lets Me Down” to be autobiographical yet it hinges on the drunkard trying to drink back “the man I used to be”. As for songs from a female point-of-view, Shook addresses rocky relationships with both men and women. The band’s roaring first single “Keep the Home Fire’s Burnin'” turns a torch song into a tended fireplace, seeming to construct a heterosexual scenario though the lover remains ungendered. In her brilliant song “Dwight Yoakam,” however, her girlfriend leaves her for a man who sings like Dwight Yoakam–who, by the way, emerged from the L.A. cowpunk scene in the early ’80s and whose debut album includes a duet with Maria McKee.

Sarah Shook and the Disarmers is a logical extension of cowpunk, which meant more than genre hybridity. It encouraged diversity in the expression of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and politics that mainstream country still disallows. In 2004, Loretta Lynn’s most successful, and dare I say most authentic-sounding album in decades, Van Lear Rose, was released to universal acclaim. Nominated for five Grammies including Best Country Album, it failed to receive a single nomination from the Country Music Awards due to the album’s producer being Jack White of the indie rock band the White Stripes. Mainstream country has always touted — and politicized — its downhome authenticity (“realness”) as if an inborn trait, but cowpunk defied genre purism and redefined authenticity.

Shook is an antiauthoritarian, atheist, pansexual, single mother, activist, and vegan. She’s also someone who grew up homeschooled by strictly religious parents in New York state and whose first exposure to any popular music was the queer alterna-pop of Belle and Sebastian. As she told Rolling Stone, “That’s a whole lot of non-redneck shit right there.” So Shook knows what she’s up against when it comes to the dominant country music culture. On one hand, being the music of poor and working white people, she has implied that country music more or less chose her. On the other hand she wants a diverse audience of any and all good-hearted people, singing along to her songs.