INTERVIEW: Sarah Shook Takes Confident Strides on ‘Nightroamer’
Fans of Sarah Shook know what to expect from the outspoken honky-tonk singer and their band: a threatening storm of honky-tonk songs about lost love, addiction, and self-loathing, anchored by Shook’s brash world-weary drawl. Shook’s previous albums have a certain sense of Southern gothic shadows looming in the backdrop, inviting us to join us in outrunning their demons. On Nightroamer, the band’s new album on Thirty Tigers, fans will get all the elements they love, with a new ingredient: confidence.
Produced by Grammy Award winner Pete Anderson, who has worked with k.d. Lang and Shook’s idol Dwight Yoakam, Nightroamer sees the Shook and their band, featuring Eric Peterson (electric guitar), Phil Sullivan (pedal steel), Aaron Oliva (bass) and Will Rigby (drums), flex their muscles with aplomb. There’s many a sad waltz on Nightroamer, but Shook pays homage to emo and indie rock as well.
One of the biggest changes to the band’s approach on Nightroamer is that the band’s storm has been contained, putting Shook’s singing front and center. Shook credits the change to Anderson.
“That was like one of the first conversations that he and I had when we got to the studio and started talking about all of this stuff,” Shook tells The Boot.
Shook was open to anything Pete Anderson suggested, including playing lead guitar on a few songs. They’re quick to credit guitarist Eric Peterson – “I don't want to step on Eric's toes too much, cause he's really good at what he does.”
Much of the band’s sonic experimentation came from that same open-minded approach. Shook explains that when the band began to select material for Nightroamer in the fall of 2019, they found themselves with some extra time.
“All of the usual suspects made the cut,” they cracked. But at the end of the last rehearsal, the band asked Shook if there was anything extra to play to “blow off some steam.”
As a result, songs that feel poppy in comparison to the Disarmers’ shoot-from-the-hip country have entered the band’s rotation. “Been Lovin’ You Too Long” is anchored by a tense guitar hook that would feel at home on a ‘90s alt-rock station, while “I Got This” is a cautiously optimistic number that can best be described by the younger people it’ll appeal to: It’s a bop.
Another big change for Shook is that they have come out as non-binary to their fans since the pandemic began. While Shook feels their being out has not impacted their career trajectory, they can see the positive impacts of being out on their personal life.
“A lot of the anxiety issues that I've dealt with have been from that expectation of being a certain way or acting a certain way. Letting all of those things just kind of slide off like water has been awesome.” Shook explored their identity during lockdown, arriving at “place of freedom.”
Shook has endured a fraught journey towards that place, growing up in a conservative religious household and struggling with substance use. Their songs don’t offer a roadmap to freedom, but Shook hopes they point their listeners towards a place of self-awareness.
“One of the tricky things about self-awareness is that you have to be willing to be really vulnerable because when you're aware of yourself, there are going to be things that you discover that you don't like, or that you are embarrassed by, or that you want to change," Shook says. "I think that's why most people don't really ever want to open that door. But it might end up being the most rewarding thing you do for yourself and your whole life.”
Shook has used that introspection to advocate for equity within country music: when possible, the band actively searches for artists from marginalized communities to open for them on tour. Shook is encouraged by the work the Black Opry is doing to create and maintain space for Black country and Americana artists, but wants to see white artists be more outspoken.
“White artists are afraid to talk about Black artists – and anything related to race. If we're going to make any kind of impact, we have to not be afraid to talk about this s---.”
Shook believes that white artists can and must use their platforms to promote equity – even though they have lost social media followers (and, by extension, fans) when they post explicitly about anti-racism. Shook doesn’t miss them.
“We don't want you there if you're going to be hassling Black country fans that are in the audience, or if you're going to be heckling," they note. "If you want your audience to be a safe place for people of all varieties, you have to be vocal about your expectations. But at the end of the day, do you really want those people repping your merch and listening to your music?”