Rarely does a woman tap into Nashville’s roots, find an audience bored of trite same-same formulas, and tour to a feverish small following without giving up one iota of her bareboned style, political and sexual gutsiness, and shamelessly scruffy lyrical fodder.
Sarah Shook, though, with her tattoo-etched arms and raw unfiltered voice, carves songs in which such authenticity matters. Life is not a Jello mold. People can fall down and still redeem themselves. Girls are not pure. Boys can be battled. She'll be playing in Houston at McGonigel's Mucky Duck this Saturday
No wonder long-time alt-country maverick label Bloodshot Records, home to Texas insurgent icons like Alejandro Escovedo and Old 97’s, picked up her compelling first album Sidelong (2017) and made sure to help propel her newest Years (2018), which has garnered praise from Vice, Rolling Stone, and many more. All this for a gal who started penning tunes at age nine while being raised by hardcore religious parents in Rochester, New York, hundreds of miles away from Southern grit. Under the spell of Wanda Jackson, the famous and ground-shaking rockabilly, country, and gospel star, Shook formed her first band in 2010 and has not given up an inch of her singularity.
A strong whiff of working-class, weathered porch poetry rises up from Shook and company, especially on brand new tunes like the slow, swaying, rueful “The Way She Looked at You. ” One immediately senses that she does not pander to the often vacuous, pretend-country sheen of Nashville. Instead of offering smooth FM radio gyrations and fancy stitched pants, she unleashes messy tales and small bits of her trademark warble, scattered here and there, to let listeners understand the human-scale of her endeavor. She embodies trailer-park-tough smarts, real deal country, not studio gimmickry concocted for mass appeal.
And her incantations of an earthy variety of subjects on her albums – off-the-cuff references to whiskey, the songs of whip-poor-wills, or hole-ridden hearts – are stones left partly rough. “Good as Gold” is a stellar cut buoyed by warm production values that feature not-so-subtle wordplay (“you are as good as gold / I’m as good as gone”) that maps the narrator's sawdust-flecked defiance. Meanwhile, the hard shuffle of “Keep the Home Fires Burnin’” evokes a lonesome North Carolina moon and the everyday, grueling labor of a narrator who could be anyone lovesick at home, pining in the uncertain night.
A trending counterculture has always graced modern country, from “outlaw” in the 1970s and “cowpunk” in the 1980s to insurgent “alt-country” in the 1990s to whatever is gracing the record players of the disenchanted now. Shook, however, occupies somewhere between those spaces, unleashing a volley of songs that reminds listeners of Loretta Lynn’s blunt feminism in the 1970s (think “The Pill”) and Neko Case’s dark, uncanny spiels.
Meanwhile, for a trip through Shook’s alleyway blues, listen for the locomotive stomp of the rockabilly-infused “Nothin’ Feels Right But Doin’ Wrong,” which recalls endless liquor shots, one-night stands, doses of pills, burned bridges, and dances with the devil. During those moments, Shook seems to be both in the present, flailing away at her own problems, but also placing one foot in the past, by channeling the missteps of millions and figuring out a way towards something redemptive in the smeared light.
Shook performs at 7 p.m. January 26 at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk. For information, call 713-528-5999 or visit mcgonigels.com. $20 in advance, $22 at the door.