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Sarah Shook; Photo Credit: Jillian Clark
North Carolina’s Sarah Shook sings with a conviction and hard honesty sorely lacking in much of today’s Americana landscape. Always passionate, and at times profane, Sarah stalks/walks the line between vulnerable and menacing. You can hear in her voice what’s she’s seen; world weary, hard lessons learned—or not—but always defiant. She level-steady means what she says. The Disarmers, with their snarling boom-chicka-boom guitars and an Old 97’s swing in the rhythm section, keep it in the pocket. Tight and tough.
Sidelong, the band’s latest album will arrive April 28th via Bloodshot Records, and it rides in the middle seat, before seat belts, of a ’77 Buick Riviera blasting down a dirt road. Rowdy punk rock sneer to the right, a bottle in a bag; organic country three chords and the truth honesty on the left—one eye in the rear view mirror and one eye on the rough road ahead. It’s a hell of a ride.
Sarah Shook has graciously taken the time to reveal and reflect upon her Top 5 Musical Influences exclusively for The Big Takeover:
“When Bloodshot Records asked me to do a piece for Big Takeover I must admit feeling somewhat intimidated; I have a pretty odd relationship with music. I was raised in a very strict, conservative Christian home and was forbidden to listen to anything but “worship” or classical music. I spent a great deal of my childhood and early teens with Vivaldi.
With the inevitable freedoms a first car and first job bring, for the first time, I got to dip a toe into the waters of contemporary music. The first oh so rebellious records I wrapped my ears around were Belle And Sebastian’s Tigermilk and the Decemberists’ self titled EP. My secret could send me to hell forever and I didn’t care, I wanted more. Things one might take for granted growing up with a wide variety of musical exposure, simple things like a satisfying arrangement, an unusual guitar tone, a melody that lurched in an unexpected direction, these were like a drug to me, I was fascinated and glassy eyed, lying beneath my blankets with headphones on, hours after the light in my parents’ room went out.
My first and truest musical love is Elliott Smith. I cut out and kept an article about his death that described him as someone “pushed to the margins of his life”. As a 17 year old home-schooled kid, weird, sheltered, and awkward, Elliott Smith was a lifeline at the perfect time. Here was someone who had found a way to embrace his strangeness, pain, and melancholy and not merely live with it, but to wrest from it art, songs that soared above an environment he felt trapped in and by, and escape.
Elliott Smith taught me that being your authentic self shines through your art and gives it life, even if that authentic self is misunderstood or scorned, one owes it to his/herself and to their art to be genuine.
About ten years ago, a former boyfriend introduced me to the music of Junior Wells and Hank Williams, as well as a slew of traditional country artists. Charley Pride, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Melvin Endsley, I could go on for some time. I loved how Hank Williams could tell a story so simply, could say so little, but the meaning and feeling and insinuations in the song were undeniably palpable; it was like he told you just enough of his story so there was still room for you to apply your own details and suddenly it wasn’t just his song, it was your (collective “your”) song.
Junior Wells, goddamn. He moves me like only Junior Wells and that voice and that spirit can move someone. It’s a singular experience, nobody can make me feel the way his music does. When I first got a hold of it I listened to “Come On In This House” on repeat for days and days. I still randomly go through phases where that’s all I wanna hear. Nothing else sounds like that, feels like that, is that raw and wretched and desperate without entirely abandoning a glimmer of a chance to turn things around somehow. Junior Wells is another true artist, authentic in his presentation of himself through his art. There’s no pretension, there’s no act, there’s no facade, there’s just a man and his voice. His ineffable voice.
Which brings me to the Sex Pistols. I think a lot of young people, punks especially, sort of sneer at the Sex Pistols on account of their manufactured Malcolm McLaren beginnings, the endless debate about Sid Vicious and his bass playing abilities or lack thereof, and I’m sure a plethora of other reasons I don’t give two fucks to know about. Regardless of how they got their start, or I daresay in spite of it, the Sex Pistols were important as fuck to what was happening in the UK: musically, culturally, and politically important. John Lydon was a possessed, malnourished, poverty stricken, pissed off kid with weird hair and teeth bad enough to earn him his Johnny Rotten moniker, but when he shuffled onto a stage and shoved his face up to a microphone with his eyes bugging out furiously and opened his mouth and sang, time fucking stood still and every biblical prophet in heaven hung their sorry, irrelevant heads at their complete and utter impotence. If you believe in that sort of thing. John Lydon’s anger ran through him like an electrical current, anger at societal constructs and systematic oppression of the poor, anger at the total ineffectiveness of politics to bring needed reform in London, he knew exactly what he was doing. And he was the only person who could fill that role. Nobody else could have even come close to accomplishing what he did at that time nor have had the profound, lasting, and far-reaching effect on so many lives that he did.
Can we talk about Wanda Jackson? My introduction was a Best Of Wanda Jackson sort of deal, a healthy compilation of her greatest hits including the mind blowing “Fujiyama Mama”. As a woman who was home-schooled and raised to believe that, as a woman, my sole purpose for existing was to be a wife, mother, and housekeeper, this was insane, off-roading terrain. This woman didn’t care that she sounded nothing like other prominent female artists of her day and age. It was as if they were all huddled in a corner trying to elbow their way past each other to stardom with their cookie cutter velvety voices while Wanda Jackson careened down the interstate on top of a Cadillac, shredding hell outta her guitar and growling my-way-or-the-highway, let’s-have-a-party songs into the wind, not a care in the world other than doing exactly what she wanted, which was playing shows and crushing life.
Wanda Jackson was as much a personal influence as a musical influence. Her tenacity and indomitable spirit have long reigned supreme in my heart. I saw her several years back at the Local 506, in Chapel Hill, NC. She was about 77 at the time I believe, she packed the room and her performance was so powerful and moving I almost fainted… and us outlaws aren’t s’posed to admit things like that.
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