Were a ministering wind to blow across a desolate dust bowl landscape on its way toward the promise of California, it might sound like Sarah Shook & the Devil. Her earthy alto possesses a raw-boned appeal that fits somewhere between Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson, trailing an old country and western ethos like a wagon wheel does the horse. There's plenty of pedal steel peals and rootsy strums powered by languid but sturdy rhythms, too.
But it's Shook's show: Her wavering croon sidles capably from the whiskey-fueled hook-up "Follow You Home" to the rockabilly-flavored stomp, "Shotgun Betty." She is at her best on windswept Westerns such as "Outlaw." The song keenly evokes the spirit of frontier cat houses and sodden saloons, while Shook watches her bad boy receive his rope-mediated comeuppance. Her mournful vocals are a lit fuse. She revisits this parched sway two songs later for "Old Friend." This time the victim's guilty not in his application of a pistol but instead in the glass of whiskey in which he's slowly drowning. "I often wonder what I would've said to you that last time we were together, or if I only knew," she sings. "Dear old friend of mine, when you reach where you're heading won't you give me a sign?"
Shook is skilled at re-creating the sinking feeling of fleeting opportunity. Even if it's a familiar sentiment, few can put words around it. Shook is fortunate that she doesn't have to—it's embedded in the low, lonesome hum of her voice.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Stay restless."