Lovers Lane
Copernicus Center

Cover Story: Sarah Shook an the Disarmers • ” The Four Agreements”

| January 31, 2022

Collectively, it’s relatively easy to look at the last couple of soul-trying pandemic years —  wherein one entire political party in America continues to deny not only the science of climate change but the enactment of any constructive legislation that could thwart it or at least slow it down — and say that we, humanity, have essentially learned nothing. But on a personal level, however, North Carolinian alt-country crooner Sarah Shook swears that a lot was learned, despite such converse ignorance. So much, in fact, that all the signs and revelations came tumbling out into Nightroamer, Shook’s thoughtful, cathartically-twanging new third album with a longtime backing band, The Disarmers. And when it comes to sharing that life-changing wisdom, this vest-pocket philosopher is as generous as Yoda.

As Shook sees it, it’s all about the perception of how you see yourself in relation to the world around you, even when sinister forces like the coronavirus are at work. And as ominous as things may get, Shook stresses, they don’t have to remain the same; Once you learn how, you can always change your viewpoint. Always find the silver lining in the blackest of clouds.

It might be tough to revisit now, but most folks can probably still remember the darkness of March 2020? Those early days often felt like that chilling scene in the first (and definitive) Matrix movie, where — when they finally track down Neo/Keanu’s corporeal entity, he’s encased in a slime pod, plugged in as some faceless battery to power the gray, oppressive dystopian Machine. Were we all just providing juice for some intangible post-COVID future, one that — at the terrifying time — had no solid guarantee of ever arriving? Shook stared out into that void from the Thoreau-rustic forest retreat and saw shapes, forms, and patterns—recognizable touchstones to make sense of it all. “I have endured two years of the pandemic in a duplex in the woods,” the vocalist and guitarist recalls. “And I often thought about other people’s experiences, like people who have been locked down in China, in the city, who couldn’t leave their house for weeks at a time.” Consequently, Shook felt lucky, almost privileged by comparison. “And I always tried to keep that in mind.”

That zen-like outlook began pre-pandemic, long before the classic-country-inspired artist started sculpting the thoughtful lopers that would become *Nightroamer. And it started with one simple query innocently posed in a popular online poll. “Somebody made a post that went viral, where they basically put up the question to women, ‘What would you do for 24 hours in a World Without Men? And a staggeringly high number of women said, ‘I would go for a walk at night,’” Shook relates, with a somber sigh. “And it was so fucking heartbreaking because up until the point that I was faced with the data of that conversation, I had never thought about that. I’ve been walking at night for a long time, and that’s what I do on tour a lot, especially since I got sober.” Whenever she has an evening off in a strange city, and typically after a concert, as well, Shook has always boldly stepped out alone into unfamiliar nocturnal environs, feeling no fear or uneasiness. “And maybe that’s foolish or stupid, but I feel like it’s my God-given right to walk my body down the street if that’s what I want to do.”

Hence, the basic concept of the Nightroamer, a wandering minstrel that makes their living on the road, traveling from town to town for mostly nighttime performances. Another early revelation, courtesy of the therapy Shook entered to uncover a possible autism diagnosis: The former catchall nomenclature of non-binary no longer applied — the gender pronouns of they/them now felt much more appropriate and altogether comfortable than she/her. And that breakthrough felt like a veil had finally lifted for the composer, who was raised in a stern fundamentalist religious household before escaping via a convenient, but short-lived teenage marriage, which gave her a son, Jonah, who is now himself 15. And Shook knows how awkward it might appear to the neophyte because “for some people, change is a really scary thing, especially when big shifts in culture start happening. People just lose their fucking minds.

“But for the people that finally have the language to describe themselves and finally have the words to use to describe their own experience,” they continue, “it’s all positive, it’s all good things. I have known that I was gender-queer since I was little. My mom told me that I used to tell her all the time, ‘I wish I was a boy…I wish I were a boy….’ And I think that I used to verbalize that because I didn’t know that you didn’t have to be a girl or a boy. I felt like, ‘Well, I don’t feel like what you’re telling me I am, so I must be this other thing.’ And then you grow up, your society evolves, and you change, and you realize, ‘Oh, no — I’m not either of those things!’ And that realization is fantastic. And it’s been one of the most liberating moments of my life.”

Ergo, Nightroamer cuts a peripatetic path across Shook’s traditional tear-in-your-beer turf. Perfectly produced by longtime genre vet Pete Anderson (and former lead guitarist for outlaw-country firebrand Dwight Yoakam, who Shook saluted in an eponymous anthem on their 2015 debut Sidelong), the brisk ten-song set kicks off with “Somebody Else,” featuring probing lyrics that ponder degrees of complicity in average toxic relationships, like “You keep hurting me until I quit hurting myself,” then segues into a bass-heavy rocker, “Been Lovin’ You” (the self-recriminating punchline: “I’ve been loving you for too long”). Next: Shook’s favorite track on the album, “If It’s Poison,” a sauntering bluesy waltz that amps up their patented forlorn nasal drone into a classic rockabilly-hiccup territory, followed by the chugging country rocker “No Mistakes,” the acoustic waltz of a title track, driven by the lonesome pedal steel of Phil Sullivan, as is its acoustic-jangling follower, “It Doesn’t Change Anything.” And “Change” playfully trades on the fire and brimstone imagery of their childhood, when nothing but the music of worship was allowed into the family home: “The devil on your shoulder is your only friend/ There he sits just to remind you of things come to an end.” Its lope downshifts into the sinister skeletal ballad “Please Be a Stranger,” then revs up into a thumping ode to recovery dubbed “I Got This,” again propelled crackerjack bassist Aaron Oliva. That self-empowering oomph is then underscored on “Believer,” set to the thunderous drums of Disarmers percussionist Jack Foster, while the monstrous punk-blues coda “Talkin’ To Myself’ races along to the riffs of multi-faceted guitarist Eric Peterson, an able Robin to Shook’s Batman in various incarnations (Sarah Shook and the Devil, Sarah Shook and the Dirty Hands) since the Chapel Hill beginning. And sans therapy, the artist probably would still be in conversation with themself. But thankfully, Shook has cathartic, heartfelt material in which to vent.

And there is positively no hotdogging on Nightroamer, Shook clarifies, justifiably proud of the finely-honed talent each Disarmer humbly brings to the table. “Those are the things I love about The Disarmers,” observes the bandleader. “First of, there’s versatility, and secondly, everybody wants the song to sound the best the song can sound. And sometimes that means Eric’s guitar is front and center, and sometimes it’s gonna be a very bass-driven song. And there’s never any disagreement — everybody is always on the same page about that stuff, so it’s just wonderful to work with this group of human beings.” Shook never jerks the front-person reins. They openly admit that they only recently discovered that Anderson had launched a bustling cottage industry as a record producer. Once they were over how awestruck Peterson was in his presence, they left them to their own devices in the studio. “When I heard that Pete wanted to work with us, I was excited, but Eric was over the moon,” remembers Shook, fondly. “He was just like a kid in a candy store the whole time we were making the record.”

Shook’s epiphanies started years ago, when she was working as a bank teller in Chapel Hill, and her boss lightheartedly noted one day that his employee resembled the kind of roughneck that carry a knife in their boot. “This was before I started making music as a job, and I was just like, Why am I a bank teller” I gotta get out of here!’” The C&W fan began bartending at local music venues and soon adopted a Bowie knife as a faux-tattooed logo. Other breakthroughs kicked in later, in 2017, on a massive national tour introducing the great Sidelong bow. An even scrappier and more acclaimed sophomore set (on Chicago’s now idled Bloodshot Records) called Years had just been wrapped, so a celebration was in the air. But a dark shadow hung over the entire juggernaut since — just as it commenced — the mother and son Jonah had just been unceremoniously evicted from their North Carolina home after several secure years. Shook is far from the tortured shrinking violet of Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois antagonist. Still, they did find themselves depending upon the unexpected kindness of strangers at that uncertain turning point. With no confirmed housing to return to, Shook says, “and as a very desperate single mom, I just posted on Facebook, ‘Look — this is my situation. I have very, very low limited income, and I’m a single mother, and I need a place to stay.’ And this wonderful woman, Rebecca Newton, contacted me and was like, ‘Look — I have this huge house, it’s out in the woods, and it’s quiet. I have a couple of cats and a dog, and you’re welcome to come to stay with me. And then we’ll figure out a rent payment that is affordable for you.’ I mean, she Saved. The. Day. And still, to this day, I am just so grateful for her. And she was a single mom at a younger age when she would have really benefited from having somebody do what she did for me.” First pre-pandemic lesson? Pay it forward. Post-duplex, Shook hopes to have enough spare bedrooms to do the same for other young single mothers in need one day.

As the pandemic kicked in, Shook decided to get serious about her mental health. After consulting a psychiatrist in nearby Charlotte, worried that she might be on the spectrum. Instead, she was diagnosed with anxiety and a depressive disorder. “No surprise there,” they chortle. Enrolling in eye-opening therapy via a sliding-payment-scaled, she invested all of the money she used to spend on cigarettes and alcohol after getting clean in July of 2019 and in weekly sessions really delved into her own psyche. “So over the last two years of being home all the time, I have thrown myself into dealing with the trauma from my past so that I’m not repeating the same mistakes.” Which was made doubly difficult, they add, “when you throw a pandemic on the fire, at a time when people have never felt so disconnected from each other, never so physically isolated from each other. And then when you have essential workers that are working during this, and it’s like, ‘Oh, you got sick? We’ll give you five days, but then you’ve gotta come back and sort it all out.” Shook sighs. “So it’s not surprising to me that a lot of people are turning to conspiracy theories and the structure of conservative ideas because people are looking for structure, looking for connection in a time of chaos. But how are we failing so badly as a society that people are falling for this stuff in droves?”

That snake-oil-selling problem is perfectly summarized in Adam McKay’s spot-on, truly brilliant new film Don’t Look Up, wherein two well-meaning scientists (Leonardo DiCaprio and a frustrated Jennifer Lawrence, on TV, screaming ‘You’re all gonna die!’, at their razor-sharp best) try to warn the world of an extinction-level event fast approaching but are derailed by infotainment news, pop-cultural ephemera, and a conservative American president (Meryl Streep, with Jonah Hill as her scene-stealing self-centered son and chief of staff) tries to mine the onrushing comet for poll points — quite literally. All of Shook’s friends have recommended it, but they have yet to sit down and watch this definitive new post-“Idiocracy” milestone. “And that (movie) is a good analogy, just in general, because if you burn that down to its most basic components, we are all going to die. But none of us live like we’re going to die — we don’t think about it, it doesn’t dictate our actions, we don’t wanna even think about it. It’s just not comfortable. But how different would each of us live if that was something that we kept with us?”

For reference books Shook consulted, they cit two crucial texts in particular: The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom bestseller by Don Miguel Ruiz with Janet Mills, which four pacts the reader needs to make with themselves, based on ancient Toltec wisdom: 1) Be impeccable with your word; 2) Don’t take anything personally; 3) Don’t make assumptions, and 4) Always do your best. “And as someone coming from a background that was deeply religious, and relied on religion to dictate morality, I’m at this point in my life where I’ve realized that religion does not have a monopoly on reality, and The Four Agreements was the first book I read where someone was putting those thoughts into word form, in a cohesive, easily-digestible way,” they explain, putting Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death in the same illuminating genre. Said author synthesizes all the great psychologists, From Freud on down, “with the idea that the denial of death is the motive for how we choose to live our lives. And because we don’t wanna be constantly weighing and considering our own mortality, we devise these distractions, and religion is a big part of that. “ Pause. Another sigh, this one more optimistic. “But the possibility of no life after death? I personally find it pretty empowering to believe that I get only one shot.”

Which came first? Shook’s arsenal of confident Nightroamer material or the self-realization conclusions they arrived at through therapy? It’s truly a chicken-or-the-egg puzzlement, is the short answer. Long response: “Because as I was writing these songs, I just had a series of revelations, one after the other, and some of it was in conjunction with just the nature of therapy, which is opening yourself up and giving words to your feelings or your thoughts or things that happen to you. So as a whole, I feel like Nightroamer is much more self-aware than Years was, and Years was definitely a progression from where I was when I wrote the songs for Sidelong. So it’s kind of cool to me and very validating to me when I look at the history of those three releases, and I feel this growth. And you can see it — it’s palpable.

“Like, ‘Aww! Little Sarah is growing up! And it’s about damned time!”‘

-Tom Lanham

Photo: Harvey Robinson

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