Sarah Shook and the Disarmers strum and twang the Vancouver Folk Music Festival
Vancouver Folk Music Festival
When: July 19, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m.; July 20, 21, 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Where: Jericho Beach Park
Tickets and info: From $40 at eventbrite.ca
Home schooled in a fundamentalist Christian home where pop music was banned and a woman’s role was defined as being a devoted homemaker, mother and wife, Sarah Shook was primed to be a poster child for family values conservatives. But the real world has a knack for finding its way into the most sealed spaces.
Which is why this weekend at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, Shook and the Disarmers will be onstage laying down some of the most searingly authentic country-punk twang to ever come out of North Carolina.
The self-defined “vegan, pansexual, atheist mom in a country band from the South,” is a politically active LGBT and civil rights activist with three albums to her credit. Both Sidelong (2017) and Years (2018) are out on the Bloodshot Records label and have received rave reviews.
The Disarmers — guitarist Eric Peterson, upright bassist Aaron Olivia, drummer Kevin McClain and pedal steel guitarist Phil Sullivan are as fierce a live band as you can get, playing up to 150 shows a year.
“This is our second year of that heavy touring schedule and we’ve all sort of found our groove now,” said Shook. “There’s nothing glamorous about road dogging. You’re tired, you smell bad and have no idea of when you’ll get a shower or food that’s not awful.”
Active in the regional music scene in North Carolina for a decade, Shook first came to prominence fronting Sarah Shook and the Devil. That band dropped a self-released album in 2013 and disbanded shortly after. Guitarist Peterson moved on with the singer and version one of the Disarmers emerged later in that year and continued to expand that regional following. Working, playing and raising her son kept Shook beyond busy. An ultimatum from Peterson about where the band was going moved it to the next level, inking a management deal and signing to Chicago’s home of alt-country, Bloodshot Records in 2017.
Shook got her son’s permission to hit the road and chase success. And it’s coming as media from Rolling Stone to BuzzFeed rave about her gritty, raw and reality based country songwriting. So why she is the tattooed, whisky-rinsed chronicler of bad relationships (New Ways to Fail), bad habits (The Bottle Never Lets Me Down) and bad psyche (Heal Me) instead of the dutiful wife her family intended?
“I came out to my parents when I was 19, shortly after we had made a pretty big move from Western New York to North Carolina and it most certainly didn’t go well,” she said. “Those heartwarming stories circulating around the internet about the angst-ridden teen terrified of being rejected but everyone winds up being loving and understanding most certainly wasn’t my experience. It’s quite safe to say that my parents have come a really long way in their belief system and we’ve progressed into something really solid, but because of my experience I made a promise never to hide anything about myself after that.”
So she formed a band called the Devil, had a child, slung beer in a bar and went to work fighting the power in all the forms it took. Noting that far too many LGBT youth experience family and community rejection because of ignorance, Shook and fellow musician and activist Erika Libero of the band Henbrain set about launching a campaign to get local businesses to put up rainbow stickers to denote that they were safe spaces for people in need. The pair won a 2016 Indy Arts Award for that Chapel Hill-based Safe Space Initiative and for Manifest, a two daylong music festival which included bands that had at least one or more female member.
“I think that a lot of suffering comes from very dangerous and destructive religious belief systems and these are no victimless crimes,” she said. “A lot of people suffer serious mental, sometimes physical, damage just because of how they identify.”
Coming out about her sexual preferences came before she decided she was an atheist. It wan an eye-opening journey that involved reading the Bible from front to back and really analyzing it.
“By the time I came to the end, I had to admit that even if God was real, he’s kind of an a-hole,” she said. “I’m not into this at all. And naming my first band the Devil was a playful jab at my folks which they really thought was hilarious. We’ve really come a long way.”
Growing up without pop music isn’t why Shook wound up working in the country genre. She was already writing “secular” songs in her early twenties when a boyfriend played her Johnny Cash’s version of Long Black Veil and she saw the light.
“I was like, what is this?, it was a completely astonishing moment,” she said. “I’d been writing songs that were perfect for that style and it was immediate love. A few years later, I discovered old school punk and that fit too.”
A lot of people have called the genres two sides of the same coin, with country being more about personal injustices and punk about political injustices. Shook writes songs that take in both aspects, almost always through a personal lens. She walks the walk and talks the talk and isn’t concerned with measuring up to men or “any other stupid patriarchal competition that is so not me.”
Lyrics about drinking water tonight/because I drank all the whiskey this morning (Dwight Yoakum) and song titles like Nothing Feels Right But Doin’ Wrong make the music on Years resonate with authenticity rarely heard in any genre.
5 Canadian artists not to miss at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival
Always a great place to catch a variety of traditional music manifesting in myriad new ways, the Folk Fest is also always a showcase for talent from across Canada. Here are five excellent acts to catch over the weekend.
1: The Dardanelles/Matthew Byrne (Newfoundland). Keeping the Celtic music traditions alive and reeling, this young Maritime band also features the singer/songwriter Matthew Byrne who is a fine solo artist too.
2: Raine Hamilton String Trio (Manitoba). Cello, double bass and violin combine with soaring vocals in this Manitoba chamber-folk group.
3: George Leach Band (B.C.). A Sti’atl’imx from Lillooet, Leach is all about the blues in all of its forms. He totally burns on guitar.
4: Rosie and the Riveters (Saskatchewan). Imagine if the Anderson Sisters were feminist activists who put the patriarchy in its place in chiming three-part harmonies and you have an idea of this talented Saskatchewan trio.
5: Vivek Shraya/Too Attached (Alberta/B.C.). Siblings Vivek Shraya and Shamik Bilgi have impressive pedigrees. Shraya’s album with the Queer Songbook Orchestra titled Part-Time Woman was raved about last year. Bilgi has production and performance credits with everyone from Method Man and Redman to Tanya Tagaq. Too Attached is their fusion of traditional devotional singing, 80s R&B and more and their album Angry lives up to its title.