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Sarah Shook & the Disarmers dodge categorization on their new country-punk album


The honky-tonk punk of Sarah Shook & the Disarmers defies clean categorization.


SARAH SHOOK AND THE DISARMERS: (Singing) Lately, this time we got the timing right. Lately, I feel like life is kind of good.

GONYEA: On their third album, "Nightroamer," you can almost imagine the likes of Waylon Jennings or Tanya Tucker plugging away on some of the songs. But then come the grinding electric guitars that take us back to indie rock of the '90s and early 2000s, all with lyrics about the struggle to get to some kind of redemption. Sarah Shook joins us from Chapel Hill, N.C. Sarah, thanks so much for being here.

SARAH SHOOK: Thanks for having me, Don.

GONYEA: I take it you're the nightroamer on the song the album is named after?

SHOOK: Oh, you got it (laughter).


SARAH SHOOK AND THE DISARMERS: (Singing) Bloodied and raising the flag (ph).

GONYEA: Explain.

SHOOK: Well, I wrote "Nightroamer" at a point in time where I was trying unsuccessfully to get sober. I had a bottle of whiskey in my backpack, and I was trying so hard not to drink. And I was like, man, I'm just - you know, I'm going to go for a walk and just put some literal distance between myself and this thing that's - I'm really struggling with.


SARAH SHOOK AND THE DISARMERS: (Singing) Sweat rolling all down my face. And this is the way that I found you in a (unintelligible) time (ph), in a faraway place.

SHOOK: And I found a cemetery and sat down and wrote the whole song without a guitar, which is pretty - that doesn't happen very often. But I was like, all right, well, I got to head back to the hotel so I can grab my guitar out of the trailer and start putting some chords and melody to this.


SARAH SHOOK AND THE DISARMERS: (Singing) So goodbye from Kansas.

SHOOK: I actually got pulled over by a cop on my way back. I was on foot. I don't know if I mentioned that.



SHOOK: It ended up being a whole ordeal. But, yeah, "Nightroamer" is very autobiographical. I am a night person, for one thing. It's when I do my best thinking. It's when I'm at my most creative. But I think that "Nightroamer" also has this promise of going against the grain in an attempt to find something.

GONYEA: Yeah. I want to listen now to the song "It Doesn't Change Anything."


SARAH SHOOK AND THE DISARMERS: (Singing) The devil on your shoulder is your only friend. There he sits just to remind you all good things come to an end.

GONYEA: OK, let's start with that opening line, the devil on your shoulder is your only friend. I should add here, the angel on the other shoulder is nowhere to be found in this song.

SHOOK: That's right (laughter).

GONYEA: So talk about that, the devil on your shoulder being your friend here.

SHOOK: Yeah. Well, I mean, a good friend tells the truth, for one thing, and I feel like in this setting, you know, the person having a good talking-to is getting an earful of facts.


SARAH SHOOK AND THE DISARMERS: (Singing) God is dead, and heaven's silent. Death has lost its sting. It doesn't change anything.

SHOOK: My partner was joking the other day. He was just like, man, I just listened to "It Doesn't Change Anything" again and, like, that's, like, a black metal song. I was like, what? He was like, yeah, I mean, you know, by the purest definition, like, it's - you know, obviously genre-wise, it's not black metal. The music isn't black metal. But, like, lyrically, I think you wrote a metal song.

GONYEA: You sing God is dead, and heaven's silent. Death has lost its sting. Your - I think your partner has a point.

SHOOK: Yeah (laughter).

GONYEA: Have you had the chance to play any of these songs live in front of an audience yet, you know, along with the songs you wrote before you became sober? And I'm wondering what that feels like.

SHOOK: Yeah, there are a handful of songs off "Nightroamer" that we've been playing live for a little while. And they've gone over really well. I remember way back when I quit drinking the first time, that I sort of worked up the courage to talk about it on stage during a performance. And I - you know, you never really know how people are going to react to anything. And, you know, I had built this almost brand of myself of, like, I get drunk every night and do drugs and get into trouble, and that's what I do. And so to pull this, like, 180 - people have been so supportive.


SARAH SHOOK AND THE DISARMERS: (Singing) Up, up here in the atmosphere. I got this. The sun is shining, and my eyes are clear. I got this.

GONYEA: You are non-binary, and you're very much involved in LGBTQ advocacy. I'm wondering, do you feel like inclusivity is becoming a bigger focus of the country music scene?

SHOOK: Yeah, I have seen a lot of growth. And having been home for the last couple years because of the pandemic, I don't feel like that growth has slowed. I feel like, if anything, the rate has accelerated, just from the things that I'm seeing online on social media and in the press. And it makes me really excited to actually get back out there again and be part of it in real time.

GONYEA: Let's end with something a little bit noisy. It's also the song that ends the album. It's called "Talkin' To Myself."


SARAH SHOOK AND THE DISARMERS: (Singing) Talkin' to myself about it. Talkin' to myself. I didn't mean to go on about it.

GONYEA: All right, tell us about the song.

SHOOK: I wrote "Talkin' To Myself" sort of at - around the beginning of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 in the summertime. And I was thinking about how no matter, like, where you stand, so many of us are in our own little bubbles and we only have relationships with people who think like we do. So existing in a bubble, you might as well only be talking to yourself because it's - everybody's using the same rhetoric and you're not - you know, you're definitely not seeking out people that challenge what you believe. And I feel like for any kind of, like, actual sustainable change to occur, I feel like we just have to be willing to step outside of our comfort zones and have those conversations.

GONYEA: We've been talking to Sarah Shook of Sarah Shook & the Disarmers. Their new album, "Nightroamer" is out now. Sarah Shook, thank you very much.

SHOOK: Thank you so much.


SARAH SHOOK AND THE DISARMERS: (Singing) Well, I ain't making no mistakes like the last time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.