In the black and white portrait on the cover of Sidelong, the debut album from Sarah Shook and the Disarmers, the bandleader comes across as part Walker Evans dust bowl waif and part troubled teen from a Scared Straight documentary. There’s vulnerability amidst the smoke and her aggressive expression, but not one that conveys weakness. Rather, one senses deep feeling beneath Shook’s stone-cold demeanor. And passion.
That depth of passion saturates this excellent album from start to finish. Shook comes on like a Kitty Wells from the wrong side of the tracks, or the right one as Shook might declare without apology, at least the more interesting side. She sings honky-tonk fables, like Wells, but unlike her polite forebear, she delivers her songs with the brass of someone who has lived the lines she sings. That’s not to mistake the singer for the song, but it’s a rare vocalist that sings with such conviction and hits so hard on the first impression. Sarah Shook and the Disarmers are a rare and wonderful thing, and Sidelong could be a promise of even better things to come.
Shook is a marvel at writing the kind of classic country one-liners that have inspired generations to cry into their beers or kick back from the bar looking for trouble. In “Nail”, she follows a catalog of complaints with the line “I can’t decide which one of us will be the nail in this here coffin.” Of another lover, she sings “Sure wish I could forgive you as quickly as it seems you can forget me.” Alcohol figures prominently in her chosen imagery. “Drinkin’ water tonight ‘cause I drank all the whiskey this morning,” she offers in “Dwight Yoakum” while “Heal Me” features her quavering voice delivering the lines “There’s a hole in my heart ain’t nothin’ here can fill / but I sure keep hopin’ the whiskey will.” Her voice throughout the album is equal parts yearning and pissed, evoking a mournful sense for loves lost amidst a stubborn self-defense, or, maybe, self-defiance. The character she creates through her voice in these songs is proud and wounded with nothing to apologize for. In perhaps the best line on an album full of great ones, she sings, “God don’t make mistakes, He just makes fuck-ups.” It’s a badge proudly worn.
If any sense of vulnerability shows through, it’s a closely guarded one, as on the title track where Shook sings “I’d rather die all alone than settle for a liar / If I let myself take a chance on you and step out on the wire, / I’ll be steppin’ sidelong.” She sings in a voice that resonates growing up along dusty roads and seeing a bit too much too young. Hers is not a gun in the purse persona; it’s a knife in the boot. She’ll draw you into her songs’ scenarios like that cool friend who has done all the things your parents warned you not to do, telling stories of late-night bedlam and pocket drama.
These endearing songs of wounded hearts and messy problems are all laid out on a solid, unmade bed of sound provided by the Disarmers. Eric Peterson plays twang and burn guitars around which Phil Sullivan’s lap steel weaves like barbed wire. Along with John Howie Jr.’s galloping half-time beats and Jason Hendrick’s stand-up bass, they amplify the mood of the moment, be it anger, pain, or ponderousness over mistakes made or about to be made.
Shook released Sidelong independently in 2015 to rave reviews in her home state of North Carolina. Bloodshot Records is making this debut available nationally, with a second album already in the can. After ten years of making music, Shook is deservedly in line to become one of Americana’s next big players.