- PHOTO BY JEFF SPEVAK
- Sarah Shook's journey from rebellious Christian kid in upstate New York to accomplished North Carolina country musician comes full circle when they play Abilene Bar & Lounge in November.
Sarah Shook describes their life as a young girl as being seemingly drawn from a Flannery O’Connor novel. They grew up in Lima — “one stop light and three liquor stores,” as they put it — where their parents worked to “shelter us from an evil world” by home schooling and raising them in a fundamentalist evangelical church.
“Very literal interpretations of The Bible,” they say of those days. “Speaking in tongues, and casting out demons, all that stuff.”
As in all the best literature, rebellion was inevitable. Shook moved on from their parents’ religion, and is now an atheist. They pursued non-binary relationships, and use the personal pronouns they/them. Home today is North Carolina.
“I was very disenchanted with the church experience, and the idea of this very patriarchal, you know, ‘the men are the leaders of the church,’” Shook says. “There was so much that did not make sense, and every time I raised questions I was met with, ‘Well, you just have to have faith.’ I was like, ‘That’s not good enough for me. I want answers.’”
Emerging from the uncertainty and chaos of their early life, Shook, 37, has found some answers in music, which they bring back to Rochester at 8 p.m. Nov. 8, when Sarah Shook & the Disarmers play Abilene Bar & Lounge.
Their sound is described by some as Americana. Country, even. But if so, there’s an edgy eggshell of an exterior, even surging into punk and grunge territory through three albums, including “Nightroamers,” released in February.
Shook defends their parents as “good people.”
“They’ve really come a long way,” they say. “They really got caught up in conservative talk radio. When that was, like, exploding, it impacted the way that they raised us.
“I don’t think people realize how extreme some of these views can be,” Shook says. “My parents taught me, that, because I was a girl, I existed to only get married and have children and run a household. And not only that, I wasn’t allowed to choose my husband, my dad would choose my husband.”
Getting out of the house, Shook began seeing another world. A job at Wegmans. A dance scholarship from Rochester’s PUSH Physical Theatre, and working with its youth program, PUSH Pins. That’s where Shook first experienced touring. And liked it.
But in 2001, Shook’s parents moved the family to North Carolina. Depression and self-destructive behavior tagged along. Shook was 17 then, having been writing songs since the age of 9, although there didn’t seem to be a future in it.
“It was a tool to use to talk about my emotions, which I was really bad about talking about,” they say. “So it was catharsis for me.”
Through music, the answers Shook had been seeking began to appear, although the path was a little twisty. “I got married, I got divorced, I was a single mom at 21,” they say.
Shook worked three jobs to make ends meet, four days a week, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. And took the other three days to spend with their son.
“I started drinking pretty heavily after my ex-husband and I split, just as a coping mechanism,” Shook says. “I didn’t know how else to deal with all of a sudden going from being home schooled, having never lived on my own, having never had a boyfriend, to being a divorced single mom out in the world on my own.”
This all was a downward spiral that had to be reversed.
- PHOTO BY CHAD COCHRAN
- Sarah Shook & the Disarmers.
“Almost every song is from things I have lived through and experienced,” Shook says. “Or observed personally.”
Shook points to “Nightroamers” and one song in particular, “It Doesn’t Change Anything.” Shook quotes some lyrics:
God is dead and heaven’s silent, death has lost its sting
And it doesn’t change anything
Shook points out this line:
And there’s no one comin’ to overturn the tables
“It Doesn’t Change Anything” is a song about personal turmoil. No one’s coming to your aid. Where “the devil on your shoulder is your only friend.”
Audiences embraced Shook’s pain. Pre-pandemic, Shook was playing 150 dates a year. On the way to a tour date in Denver, Sarah Shook & the Disarmers’ drummer were taking turns driving the band van, the equipment trailer following. Definitely a metaphor, for those who believe in such things, for all that personal baggage you can’t leave behind. They stopped for the night in Hayes, Kansas.
“I was trying pretty hard to quit drinking at the time,” Shook says. “I was also, had been drinking so much, I was worried about going into withdrawals. So I had, like, a bottle of whiskey in my backpack. We got to the hotel and I was, like, ‘I need to put physical distance between myself and this bottle.’”
It was almost midnight, in the middle of July, and a lot had to be sorted out besides their drinking. Relationships. Shook was seeing someone in Ohio, and had “a sweetheart in Sweden.”
“Things were going south, not in any kind of awful, dramatic way, but in this kind of sad, ‘There’s just no way to make this work,’” Shook says. “And I realized the dichotomy of touring is like constantly meeting wonderful new people. Making new friends, finding new love interests. But you have to leave. You can’t stay.
“It’s really isolating.
“Which can be OK. I feel like the last couple years I’ve really learned how to be OK with being alone.”
Things change. Lima has a few more stop lights. Shook has acquired a few of their own, their self-destructiveness has abated. It’s all green: Shook is “over the moon” at the thought of making the short walk to Java’s Coffee on Gibbs Street after a sound check at Abilene.
“Java’s is, in my teenage years, when I drifted into rebellion, Java’s was a safe place,” they say. “It was a home away from home, I have so many fond memories of Gibbs Street.”
Memories of those Eastman School of Music students toting their cello cases down the sidewalk. “The energy,” Shook says, “it feels like everyone is doing something creative.”
What Shook calls the “undealt-with religious trauma” has been broken. The break happened after reading The Bible, cover to cover, one last time. But this time, reading it with a different set of eyes. It was time to, as Shook says, “wrap it up.”
“And everything that I have encountered in the past, that I have made an excuse for, or given God a pass for, or said there must be some explanation I just didn’t understand, I’m not going to give him an out this time,” Shook says. “He’s not getting an out. And when you read the Bible that way, it’s a lot different.
“And I’ll never forget it, it was terrifying, because this is all I’ve known. Like this religion, this set of beliefs and principles, and moral rigidity, is all I’ve known. And I sat on my porch, and it was a beautiful spring day, and I’m going to take this step and let all of this go and see what’s on the other side.
“It was really scary. It was absolutely worth it.”
Shook released their first solo album in October on the Kill Rock Stars label. It’s called "Cruel Liars," released under the moniker Mightmare, as in drawing strength from a bad dream.
So as the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said — and the 21st-century songwriter Kelly Clarkson reaffirmed — what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It just might take a few years.
Shook’s son is now 15. He’s just had his first driver’s education class. He seems to have known for a while now, his mother says, how to “invest in his own observations.”
“I think he was 6 or 7, and just eating his tomato soup at the table,” Shook says. “And he’s like, ‘Mom, that’s the thing about bad guys, they’re not bad guys. They just didn’t have the opportunities that other guys have.’”
That’s kind of early to start working on world peace. Speaking from experience, Shook says, “I’m like, ‘You need to slow your roll, dude.’”
Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at (585) 258-0343 or firstname.lastname@example.org.