Sarah Shook and the Devil had some good times together.
In a busy month, the hard-gigging country-rock band would play eight shows, many of them at downtown Pittsboro's City Tap, one of few places to hear live music in the Chatham County town. Sitting at an outside table at Chatham Marketplace, Shook affirms that the bar, just a few blocks south, was home base. Nearby, her 8-year-old son, Jonah, cavorts. He wears a Godzilla shirt. She's tattooed and dressed all in black, equal-parts country outlaw and street punk.
"I tallied it up once that we played there 30 times in one year," Shook says. "There were some serious shenanigans—everyone being drunk and us coming home at, like, two in the morning, and somebody's climbing up on the roof, screaming, 'Highway speeds! Don't slow down!'"
"Madness," she concludes levelly. "All kinds of crazy stuff."
Sarah Shook and the Devil dissolved in 2013, alongside her relationship with bassist Jon Baughman. Shook and guitarist Eric Peterson moved on, forming Sarah Shook and the Dirty Hands. The antics continued. Shook admits it was the most partying she had ever done with a band. But it wasn't sustainable, and they soon broke up.
Shook, though, had built a small fan base during three years with The Devil. Grammy-nominated producer Ian Schreier had even offered to make a record with her at Manifold Recording, a top-of-the-line studio nestled in the gentle hills above the Haw River. So the songwriter put together yet another band, the Disarmers. Peterson stuck around, while celebrated honky-tonk bandleader and Shook's boyfriend, John Howie Jr., joined on drums. They got a bass player, and then the group lost that bass player.
As she hunted for a capable and reliable upright bassist, Shook kept Schreier at bay, booked shows for the Disarmers and worked bartender shifts—all the while putting most of her energy into being the best mom she could be.
Then, in early spring, Peterson sent Shook and Howie a note.
"It was the longest message I've ever seen from him," Shook says. "He's a man of few words."
If the Disarmers weren't going to have a plan, Peterson said, if they were just going to play local shows, not have merchandise for sale and not have an album available, he needed to know. He wanted to adjust his expectations. Shook felt she'd let down the one musician who'd stuck with her.
She stopped wasting time, suddenly bringing the creative determination of someone accustomed to balancing—rather than choosing between—what may seem to be mutually exclusive ambitions. When she rejected her parents' strict religion as a young adult, for instance, she didn't reject them. Their relationship is strong, though she's a hard-line atheist who fronted a band called the Devil. And she started playing music after her son was born, timing shows and practices so she could be a self-sufficient single mom and a hard-drinking Americana bandleader.
Last spring, when Peterson wrote the note, she was balancing parenting, work, music and a few hours of sleep. He was asking her for more.
So she made it work and, with Schreier's help, finally cut her first album. The resulting country gem, Sidelong, captures Shook's wild, reckless energy and wide-open, raw dejection—qualities that led Peterson to stick with her through three hard-partying acts and internal conflict aplenty. Pent-up anger and drunken frustration power these songs. At moments, they threaten to burst apart from emotional pressure. Yet Shook, the person, sees herself as a creature of carefully controlled balance.
It's the only way she can make the sides of her life coexist.
Sarah Shook was born in 1985 and raised in a fundamentalist Christian household in Rochester, New York. She and her sisters were homeschooled. Music was mostly forbidden, with only Christian and classical allowed. Shook's mom set up instrument lessons, at least, thinking her daughter would end up in the church's praise band. But the piano teacher was mean, so Shook quit after the first lesson. The violin teacher hit her on the head with a bow, so Shook quit before that lesson even ended. She walked outside, sat down and waited.
"My mom tried," Shook, now 30, offers. "She tried so many times."
When Shook was 17, she got her first car and first job. Her best friend learned she'd grown up without much music, so he burned a copy of Belle and Sebastian's Tigermilk and the first Decemberists EP. The teenage Shook had never heard anything like this, so she got an acoustic guitar and a chord chart. She sat in her room and taught herself.
Her parents worried that such secular music would "ruin" Shook's little sister, Joanna, so Shook agreed not to play it when her sister may hear. She eventually negotiated for Joanna's musical freedom, too.
"By the time she moved out, she could listen to anything she wanted," Shook recalls, pleased. "My little sister and I wore our parents down."
Though Shook shunned her parents' religion, she doesn't cast them as villains. They received the name of her first band with shocked silence, but Mom and Dad have both come to see her play. When Shook told them she was an atheist four years ago, she expected to be disowned. Instead, she and her dad talked for two hours.
Years ago, Shook's dad taught her to self-analyze, telling her, "You have emotions and motives, just like anyone else, but if you can understand yours, why you have them, that'll give you a head start." That is, they had taught her to make her own decisions and live with the repercussions. Though homeschooled and raised in a pop culture vacuum, she wasn't nervous to start work or enter the real world.
"I knew who I was," she says, "so everything else was a variable."
The entire family moved to Garner in July 2005, when Shook was 19. She met Jonah's father seven months later, married him in three weeks and got pregnant not long after that. They soon divorced. Shook ended up in Pittsboro, where she remains.
- Photo by Jeremy M. Lange
- Sarah Shook
"Since I've moved out of my parents' house, my life has always been polar opposites," she says. "It's like two complete extremes, and I feel like my brain needs that."
In mom mode, she focuses on loving, inspiring and teaching her son. The other mode is hard-drinking and reckless.
She takes care to avoid bleed-over.
On a late summer Sunday, Shook, Howie and Peterson sit outside the Chatham Marketplace, drinking beer in the sun. Howie and Shook eat vegan sushi, while Peterson shares eye-watering jalapenos with his bandmate friends.
Jonah is with his dad today, so Shook is in full-on musician mode. Her language is a little rougher, and the tender tone with which she addresses her son does not appear.
"For a band that hasn't been around very long, we have already gone through some pretty heavy stuff at an early stage," says Howie, an area band veteran with back pages of bona fides as both country crooner and punk drummer. "We've gone through a member already and some internal psyching up—for lack of a better term—from Eric."
Peterson laughs. Shook agrees. Personnel changes and heavy emotions, such as the ones driving Peterson to question the band's trajectory, either break people apart or bring them closer.
"The month before I sent the message, it seems like we were having a really hard time rehearsing," Peterson says. He speaks deliberately and takes long pauses, eyes twinkling behind his glasses as he considers his words. "We had a great band. But it seemed like..."
"We'd lost the plot," Howie offers.
"We were sort of floundering," Peterson says, nodding in agreement.
After one too many canceled practices, Peterson snapped. He sent the message and spent the next few hours nervously checking back to see who'd read it.
"It was spot-on. It was honest. You were not being a dick," Shook reassures him. "This is a guy who has stayed with me through every band I have been in. I had him constantly as a sidekick, companion, partner, and it was like, I'm letting this guy down."
Peterson was asking what her priorities and goals were, which forced her to ask herself the same questions. Shook contacted Schreier and finally booked time at Manifold over Easter weekend. In an attempt to catch the Disarmers' lightning in a bottle, they would track the songs live. Recording that way is insane, Howie says, but he was willing to give it a shot.
The week before, Shook came down with a fierce case of tonsillitis that landed her in the ER twice. She didn't speak for five days, per doctors' orders, and entered the studio scratchy-voiced but determined. When it came time to sing, she drank whiskey and belted the lines.
"God never makes mistakes/he just makes fuck-ups," she sings during a self-effacing honky-tonk shamble. With its what-the-hell attitude and gallows humor, "Fuck Up" is the closest to happy the record gets. The bleak lament "Dwight Yoakam" opens with the stark admission, "I'm drinking water tonight/'cuz I drank all the whiskey this morning." Elsewhere, she writes herself into a Cormac McCarthy western or simply drinks away her troubles—OK, she drinks away a lot of troubles.
Peterson's guitar is overdriven and hard-edged, his solos unexpected and lyrical. Howie's drumming matches, even enables, Shook's punk-rock insistence. It's desperate, dejected music, sure, but Sidelong never feels like the work of a defeatist. Instead, it's resilient.
"I have been playing music for 10 years in this area, and I have not released an album yet," Shook says. "It's completely new territory. I don't know what's going to happen."
Moving forward as a band will, again, take careful consideration, even if Shook doesn't know what that'll look like just yet. Howie and Shook both have sons the same age. They schedule practices and shows around the days Howie and Shook don't have their kids, though Jonah sometimes hangs out in the other room while the Disarmers rehearse.
"Peterson is looking at it as we could be successful as a nationally touring act," Shook says. "We should shoot for the stars a little bit more, which has never really interested me. But he's my guitarist, and it's something he'd like to do."
Shook thinks there are ways to take to the road and make parenthood work, but not year-round. She'd be willing to take Jonah along and home school him, but when would he get to see his dad, friends and grandparents? She wants him to have as normal a life as possible, and heavy touring would interfere with that. Early in the summer, she even quit a job at Pittsboro's SunTrust Bank because she would have had him only a day and a half every week.
"I want, through my actions, for him to always know that he's a priority," she says. "There's mom time, and then there's the rest of the time. It's a pretty stark dichotomy."
She's protective of the distinction, wary that just one more thing will throw it off. It's one reason, she admits, she hesitated to schedule a studio date and to make an album. Finally preparing to release the Disarmers' debut, Shook simply says she'll have to recalibrate the balance.
"I do not get enough sleep," she says, laughing. "Jonah says, 'Then go to bed earlier, Mom!'"