Interview with Americana artist Sarah Shook - music that encapsulates the soul of a younger generation

"Music that stands the test of time, whatever the genre, is comprised of skill, knowledge, heart, and earnest and engaging delivery."

Sarah Shook: One Bourbon, One Guitar, One Smoke

In the vapid wasteland of the modern entertainment industry, authenticity and originality are no longer glorified and rarely receive so much as an honorable mention. Every celebrity outfit, break up, and hair cut are scrutinized with microscopic intensity while the ability to craft songs declines beyond belief, execution is embarrassingly tacky, and a brand new generation of music fans, steeped in the Internet-culture of instant gratification and suffering from a bad case of mob mentality, cheer their ignorant approval. Sarah Shook couldn’t be further removed from that mad scene.

She has held steady in her anti-label, quasi-misanthropic approach to the industry and makes no apologies for it.  From her first handful of solo performances in 2008 to the close of a successful 3 year run with her country band, Sarah Shook & the Devil, the object of her hawkeyed focus has not been making a name for herself, but writing authentic, honest, no bullshit, heart wrenching songs and delivering a hardcore execution worthy of them. Shook was incredibly fortunate with her first band. Sarah Shook & the Devil was (upright bassist) Jon Baughman’s brainchild. The duo was soon joined by Phil Sullivan, lap steel, and Eric Peterson, guitar. When Sarah Shook & the Devil released their EP, Seven, in July of 2013 it was well received, surprisingly on an international scale. Despite being a North Carolina-based band with a penchant for playing close to home, Shook began receiving messages from fans in States, Europe, Iran, Brazil, Japan, the world over. A record store owner in Madrid emailed the booking account requesting 10 CDs, claiming his patrons were demanding physical copies. Shook credited the band’s ability to control their own image, something not always easily done for bands signed to a label. Despite its success, the Devil disbanded in October 2013. Shook’s withdrawal from society resulted in a slew of new songs; songs with a darker, harder feel, and gritty undercurrents. She was ready to venture out and Peterson was sticking with her. A quickly formed band complimented the songs well but dissipated just as quickly after only a few shows. In spite of numerous setbacks, in the midst of a glaring number of challenges and uncertainties, Shook is undaunted.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How do you describe Sarah Shook sound and progress? What characterizes your music philosophy?

Being a country artist used to mean having a unique, distinct sound. No one is likely to confuse the voice and songwriting of Hank Williams Sr. with that of George Jones or Roger Miller. Even the sounds of their respective bands had instantly recognizable qualities. It’s important to me to maintain what I consider to be my sound, meaning what comes naturally through songwriting, musicianship, arrangements, etc. In essence, my music philosophy is to create authentic, honest, songs, and to incessantly strengthen my abilities.

What experiences in your life have triggered your ideas for songs most frequently?

Experiences we humans seem to share with the most frequency and intensity: finding love, struggling with love, losing love. Drinking whiskey frequently and with intensity also assists a great deal with my writing.

"A day with Wanda Jackson, hot damn. Hopefully guitars, singing, and drinking whiskey on my porch and would be involved." Photo by Jackson McGee

Why did you think that the Honky Tonk culture and music continues to generate such a devoted following?

I think the genre carries certain truths and presents human commonalities that are timeless in a genuine and very likable way. People are drawn to things that come across as honest. When Charley Pride’s voice comes out of your record player singing “Happiest Song on the Jukebox” there is absolutely not one thing about that that is contrived; the man is euphoric with his newfound love and is compelled to sing it out to anyone who will listen. On the darker side of things, “Just One More” from George Jones conveys an utter and complete sense of loss and the relentless torture of memory. “Put the bottle on the table/Let it stay there til I’m not able/To see your face in every place that I go”. I can certainly relate to the sentiments expressed in both of these songs in spite of their polarity and it seems most folks can.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? Are there any memories which you’d like to share with us?

Maybe the one that involved a bottle of liquor per person, the random banana costume, whiplash, and a homemade flamethrower. That was a good one.

What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had? Which memory makes you smile?

Our EP release party in 2013 was certainly a night to remember. We played to a packed house at the City Tap in Pittsboro, NC, on a sultry July night. Being surrounded by friends and long-time fans who were primed and ready to get rowdy and celebrate our achievement with us was an amazing sensation. John Howie Jr. & the Rosewood Bluff did us the honor of opening the show with the kind of hard-hitting, authentic country and honky tonk music they’re known for and consistently deliver with an infectious fervor.

And I can’t think of the Rockingham Speedway without smiling. The boys and I played a biker rally there; some of the folks down front had gallon sized jugs of moonshine with the word FIREWATER written on them in Sharpie. They kept passing the shine up to us during the show. During the second set my guitarist, Eric Peterson, traipsed over to me giggling and patted my shoulder, assured me that he was “fine” but that he had to go sleep in his car. And I’ll be damned if he didn’t set his guitar down and slip off into the shadows grinning and weaving like a madman the whole way. The audience loved it. 

"Experiences we humans seem to share with the most frequency and intensity: finding love, struggling with love, losing love. Drinking whiskey frequently and with intensity also assists a great deal with my writing." (Photo by Jackson McGee / Philip Sullivan, Sarah Shook, Eric Peterson and Jon Baughman)

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

Here are some of the people who have made a huge impact on my music:

My former upright bassist, Jon Baughman, introduced me to old school country music and persuaded me to try my hand at some old covers. The band was his brainchild and he introduced me to my longtime guitarist and friend Eric Peterson. Peterson’s talent, his experience, and his insight are priceless. (And, as you now know, his penchant for moonshine consumption is impressive.) My former lap steel player, Phil Sullivan, was an integral part of creating our sound. The four of us had a great three year run together. Many, many good memories of those days.

Mario Bianchi came to Chatham County from Bergamo, Italy, for a music engineering internship at Manifold with chief engineer Ian Schreier. It was Mario’s idea to record a short EP for Sarah Shook & the Devil as part of his internship and it was this recording that we eventually released in July 2013.

Seth Wood, friend and an owner of the City Tap in Pittsboro, NC, was the driving force behind completing the EP. He constantly pressed us to progress with the mixing and mastering of the EP, presented us with album art from his friend, Zeno Schaefer, and recruited graphic designer Adam Hajnos to assist me with layout and packaging.

John Howie Jr.’s songwriting, singing, and stage presence has made him a personal hero for many years.  In the realm of genuine country music, he is a formidable force and a shining inspiration to anyone who holds the genre sacred and dear.

I follow my own advice which is simply to be myself in all matters. That entails equal parts hard work and mischief.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of music?

I miss what music used to mean to people. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology and the Internet, my generation consumes music instantly, effortlessly, and often mindlessly. While certainly convenient, unfortunately that level of accessibility cheapens the musical work exponentially.  With the touch of a finger you can own an artist’s entire discography or watch a rockabilly band in Australia raising hell on their back porch.  That golden era when live music was king, vinyl was precious, and listening to music meant getting up and going somewhere, making real effort, is long gone and not to return. The modern music industry has become a popularity contest and there is no sign of reform in sight. My hope is that smaller, local music scenes will learn to flourish and sustain themselves but, again, independent artists and bands are up against the kind of instant accessibility that makes no demands of their fans whatsoever. Why put forth effort to hear and experience music if you don’t have to? I’m pretty curious to see what becomes of mainstream music.  It seems poised to implode and crumble.

"I miss what music used to mean to people. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology and the Internet, my generation consumes music instantly, effortlessly, and often mindlessly."

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I would shift the focus back to where it should have been all along: the musical work. The music industry made a huge mistake when it decided to place higher importance on bands’ and recording artists’ image over their skills and abilities. Basically we’re stuck with a bunch of good looking people running around making crappy music. How we got to this point is completely beyond me.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Alt Country and continue to Honky Tonk and Rock n’ Roll?

Music that stands the test of time, whatever the genre, is comprised of skill, knowledge, heart, and earnest and engaging delivery. In spite of obvious differences in instrumentation, rhythm, and general feel between the genres you mentioned, most enduring music plays lyrically upon those tried and true common themes so familiar and relevant to us. Love and love lost. Doing wrong and having wrong done to us. Making bad decisions and the unfolding consequences. 

What does to be a female artist in a “Man World” as James Brown says? What is the status of women in Americana?

To be perfectly honest, at this point I see very little difference between the struggles and triumphs of female artists and the struggles and triumphs of male artists. I’m sure plenty of people would disagree with that remark but it’s pretty cut and dry in my opinion. If you want respect, you earn it. If you want your band to be solid and have a favorable reputation, practice hard. If you want to be recognized as a skilled songwriter, don’t write crappy songs. If you want loyal fans, talk to people. Make yourself available. These things apply to everyone.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the music circuits?

Phillip Roebuck’s new album, Alpine Butterfly, has been in my record player for almost two months non-stop.  Listening to that album is like having the most honest, heartfelt, nothing-held-back conversation with your oldest friend. It is truly one of those rarities. You listen to the music and you feel as if you’ve known the man for your whole life long. And that he has you pretty figured out as well. It is absolutely epic. A wonderful, sensational record.

Roger Miller’s “Can’t Rollerskate in a Buffalo Herd” had me cracking up again the other day.  It never fails. Roger’s ability to create the most absurd and marvelous lyrics seem to almost suspend one from reality at times. Bear in mind also that this same man wrote “World So Full Of Love”, a heart wrenching tale of a love lost and the ensuing devastation. Absolutely outstanding songwriter, that one.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

That lawless, godless wasteland that was the wild American west appeals to me for many reasons, the most obvious being the lack of any sort of organized authority. The elusive every-man-for-himself environment sounds glorious.

How you would spend a day with Wanda Jackson? What would you say to Jim Beam? What would you like to ask the Devil?

A day with Wanda Jackson, hot damn. Hopefully guitars, singing, and drinking whiskey on my porch and would be involved. I’d have to advise Jim Beam to steal Makers Mark’s recipe and run with it. And I don’t think there’s much the Devil knows that I don’t.

Sarah Shook & the Devil - Home

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