Saturday, June 17, 2017

Music Reviews: Sarah Shook

Sarah Shook and the Disarmers
I'm not a huge fan of most country music. Usually the rhythms and tones aren't really my thing. But that said, country music is one of the basic building blocks of American popular music, along with blues, gospel and jazz. Everything is related if you go back far enough. Country rhythms regularly pop up in Chuck Berry tunes. Ray Charles reworked country standards into soul ones. The father of country music, Jimmie Rogers, was influenced by blues artists. He was also known as a white bluesman. Rogers' yodeling later influenced blues titan Howling Wolf. Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley were influenced by black rock-n-roll and blues musicians.

And Sarah Shook was in part influenced by gospel great Bessie Griffin. And on and on. The circle keeps turning. One thing that the best forms of music share regardless of genre is emotional honesty. I first heard about Sarah Shook in a recent NYT review. I was intrigued enough to give her music a listen. I was happy I did.

Now I must admit that her upstate New York by way of North Carolina warbly alto voice may not be to everyone's taste. But I like her voice for this music. Shook is an engaging singer. And she's not bad as a guitarist. The music she's creating doesn't usually require her or the other guitarists in her band to fly up and down the fingerboard constantly or show off everything that they know in under two minutes. Sometimes knowing what not to play and where to leave space for the vocals and other instruments is just as important as filling up the sonic voids. The guitar solos, when they occur, are usually short and to the point. And that is a welcome departure from a lot of guitar wanking.

Shook shines in songwriting and interpretation. She is an excellent example of someone who plays for the song. As a self-described left-wing bisexual vegan atheist civil rights activist working in a genre that has often been more associated with reactionary politics, Shook shows, as many musicians of all races, both genders and various sexualities have done before her, that what matters is the emotion that a person puts in their music, not the singer's politics or other personal characteristics.

Shook's song "Dwight Yoakam" is a bluesy ode to a lost lover. That the lover is female doesn't really change the emotions that any listener might feel. Anyone who's been thru some stuff might be able to relate. Sonically Shook's voice and album production and arrangements hearken back to early fifties country from Sun Records. She also gives more than a few nods to Bakersfield luminaries such as Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and well Dwight Yoakam. This is not your stereotypical cloying Nashville stuff. It's rougher, bassier and with a lot more immediacy and attitude. This is country that is not that far removed from early rock-n-roll and blues. The women in Sarah Shook's songs like to drink, like to mess around, and have seen a few things in life. Shook was impoverished growing up. 

Some of the hard times she sings about may have been inspired by her own experiences or observations. I like the lyric couplet in "The Nail": I ain't your last, you ain't my first/You can't decide which fact is worse. "Shotgun Betty" is also a jaunty song, though I think it might be a cover. It's a murder ballad in the style of "Hey Joe" as made famous by Hendrix. That song seems to call back to some Jimmie Rogers or Wanda Jackson songs. As stated, there aren't too many over-indulgent guitar solos here. But there are in my opinion more than a few songs that the listener will remember. And I think that counts for so much more than yet another guitarist making a scrunched up face  playing "wee-wee-wee" as fast and as loud as they can. 

Like Steve Earle, Shook writes and sings songs that hit you in the gut. Alcohol, regret and heartbreak are primary themes. I don't find any of this music depressing. Much the opposite. Like African-American Blues, Roma music, and Portuguese Fado, this kind of country music looks at the world the way it is and exhorts the listener/singer to keep on going. 

If you don't like what you think of as modern country you might want to give Shook's re-released debut album "Sidelong" a listen to see if you're missing something. If you already know that you enjoy the tougher, harder hitting, bluesier sides of country music then you should definitely purchase the album. Shook is going forward and respecting the past all at the same time. She sings with commitment and honesty.

Dwight Yoakam    Nothing Feels Right But Doing Wrong 
Shotgun Betty   The Nail

The Things We Were Taught Are Too Small 

Hurt   Heal Me 
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