Capitol Roots: Sarah Shook

Sarah Shook and the Disarmers celebrate the release of their new recording, “Years,” at Pearl Street on April 26. Photo: John Gessner

Sarah Shook and the Disarmers made their first album on their own and released it themselves. “Sidelong” slowly built an enthusiastic following that caught the attention of Bloodshot Records. The label re-released the record in 2016 and quickly sent the band back to the studio to make another.

The story could have taken a sad turn at that point; a lot of bands stumble on their sophomore efforts. But Shook and the Disarmers handled the pressure and delivered “Years,” a record that is richer and more rewarding than their debut. Now they’re backing it up with powerful live shows. Rolling Stone praised their recent performance at South by Southwest as one of the best Americana sets of that music festival.

They’ll be at Pearl Street Warehouse on April 26.

Writing songs helped Shook break free from a strict upbringing in North Carolina, and on “Sidelong” she spilled her guts like a store-bought pinata. For the follow-up, with the record company paying for studio time, she stayed sober and focused. Her voice still quavers with emotion but she’s in control. There’s a lot more pedal steel guitar on the record, playing nicely with the crunchy electric guitar to channel great ‘70s country. 

Shook has written 10 songs that are, overall, more precise and telling than her first batch. The catchy “Over You” evokes jangly Southern bands like early REM, but most of the numbers, like her voice, are distinctly country. Her wild side still comes through on songs like “New Ways to Fail” and “Damned if I Do, Damned if I Don’t,” where she sings: “There was no plate of dinner in the oven / So I know I ain’t about to get no lovin’.” 

Male artists like Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell get a lot of credit for writing great songs and being willing to break the rules of mainstream country. With “Years,” Sarah Shook proves that she (along with Margo Price and some other women) is just as badass as the boys.

Stripmall Ballads
Over the last 15 years, Phillips Saylor Wisor has made four records under the name “Stripmall Ballads,” which is how he will be billed at Mr. Henry’s on April 19. The name is descriptive of many of his songs, which generally take an unrushed view of everyday life. Some of them cut deep, though.

A few years back, he wrote a suite of six songs that he called a “folk opera,” about a group of people spiraling into destructive behavior. A performance video of “On Your Way Down” caught the attention of a literary agent, and soon publishers and record companies were bidding for the rights to use the songs as the basis for a graphic novel.

Wisor signed a deal with Warner Brothers, and it looked as if his wildest career dreams were about to come true. Then Warner Brothers got sold, the executives who signed him got fired and his songs never got released.

“I had to reevaluate what really mattered to me,” said Wisor. “What do I really love about being a folksinger?”

He decided that mastering his instruments and writing songs were the work he really loves, and he sought a way that he could focus on those tasks. Around the same time, he started working as a substitute teacher, and when he took a banjo to class on his first day, the students responded enthusiastically.

Soon he realized, “Students could be the center of my musical focus.” Today Wisor teaches guitar, banjo and mandolin at Music on the Hill, a music store on northeast Capitol Hill. And he continues to write and play songs that are like snapshots of normal life.

Wisor says he has no regrets about what almost was, and he’s grateful to be where he is today. “It’s been good for my soul,” he said, ‘‘to find the sweeter carrot.”