The debut of singer and songwriter Sarah Shook, 2015’s cowpunk gem Sidelong, was a quiet release, but it was anything but sleepy. An electrifying blend of honky-tonk guided by a devil-may-care attitude, Shook sang of drinking and desire, fusing vulnerability and tenacity with a bumptious vocal style. But as a single mother with a full-time job, Shook expected to fit musicianship into her life like a single piece of a very large puzzle. Recognizing her potential, her bandmates gave her an ultimatum: Saddle up, or get lost. She took the request to heart.
The result is Years, a new direction for the New York-born songwriter who now calls Carrboro home. Years, released in 2017 on Chicago’s Bloodshot Records, is a steadier and more contemplative record, where everything, from Shook’s turbulent past to her gender identity, is open to interpretation. Joined by guitarist Eric Peterson (the dB’s and Let’s Active) and multi-instrumentalist Phil Sullivan, the album pulls together moments of pedal steel, deep bass grooves, and pure punk bluster. Shook’s voice is equal parts achy twang and glowering alto, delivering heart and humor through her sharp and fiercely honest songwriting.
Years asks listeners to imagine the future of country music where the traditional limits of identity, sound, and sexuality are erased. Indeed, Shook puts her money where her mouth is; as co-director of Manifest, a two-night festival in Chapel Hill, she requests that each band have at least one member who identifies as a woman, minority, or LGBTQ. Her modern outlook—and the songs that materialize from it—is a reminder that our past can serve as a springboard, rather than a weight.