The pandemic version of MerleFest — the one held in September and not April — begins today with a full slate of top acts, including Sturgill Simpson and Margo Price playing back-to-back sets on the Watson Stage.
The lineup includes plenty of North Carolina musicians, including Sarah Shook, a Triangle-based singer with a sound rooted in Outlaw Country.
A frequent performer in Winston-Salem, Shook received critical acclaim for the 2018 album, “Years.” Greg Kot, a former music critic for the Chicago Tribune and host of the music podcast “Sound Opinions,” named it his No. 1 album of 2018.
Shook will perform 5 p.m. Saturday at the Hillside Stage.
Q: Besides what I’m sure was a financial hit, what sort of interruption did the pandemic have on your career?
Answer: We were in Los Angeles making our upcoming record when the first reports of the novel coronavirus hit the news. We finished the record and flew home just days before California started shutting everything down and all our tour dates were either canceled or postponed. Our album, “Nightroamer,” was originally slated to come out fall 2020, and we’re now releasing it February 2022. The impact the pandemic has had on us individually and collectively is unquantifiable, as it is for everyone.
Q: How did you spend the pandemic? Back here in North Carolina?
Answer: In March of 2020, I was eight months sober. When I realized I’d be off the road indefinitely, I did two things: I started therapy and I started working on a solo project. I knew therapy alone wasn’t going to get where I needed, so a lot of work was part of that process; breaking bad habits and unhealthy coping mechanisms, generally taking better care of myself, facing and dealing with a great deal of trauma that alcohol and time may have a way of burying.
And when I realized the Disarmers’ next album wouldn’t be coming out any time soon, I had to get some music off my chest and into the world as soon as humanly possible. I just had the tracks mastered and am really excited to share plans for the record soon.
Q: I think most folks who heard “Sidelong” and “Years” caught on that you were hard-drinking and unapologetic, which made for great country songs. Did it make it harder to get sober because your onstage persona was so closely tied to drinking?
Answer: Not at all. I get asked a lot if I’ll still sing the drinking songs and the answer is yes, that’s who I was and what I did and it’s a part of me I’m not ashamed of. Not everybody needs to get sober. I was literally drinking myself to death, so quitting was something I personally, absolutely had to do. I’m very grateful to still be alive, and I don’t ever wanna forget that I almost didn’t make it.
Q: Did the pandemic challenge your sobriety or did it help you build healthier habits?
Answer: I started researching sobriety months before my actual sober date and while that helped, nothing I read was useful as the conclusion I came to myself: As long as I see alcohol as a reward, not drinking is going to feel like punishment.
I worked very, very hard to change the entire way I perceive alcohol and ultimately utilized basic human psychology in my favor. I’ve never had a single craving. I’ve never been tempted to have one drink. Nothing about drinking is appealing to me. I’m disinterested, and it’s saving my life every day.
Q: You received a lot of acclaim for “Years.” Does that sort of acclaim come with pressure as far as your next album? How are you approaching your next album?
Answer: There’s always some degree of pressure for whatever number album you put out, I think that’s just a given. I write whatever comes to me as it comes, lyrics, melody, chords, basic structure, and then I take it to the band and we finalize the arrangement together. This has always been our process and as they say, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it!”
We have our own sound and our own feel, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It doesn’t bother us that we’re not everyone’s cup of tea. We make music we’re proud of, and all told, that’s what drives us. Personal satisfaction with our work.
Q: How has it been being out on the road with the delta variant raging? MerleFest made the decision to go with mandatory vaccines or a negative test. Do those sorts of measures make you feel safer as a performer?
Answer: It’s been really surreal. Politicians have weaponized misinformation to dig deeper into their positions with zero regard for facts and in spite of a basic understanding of how airborne viral transmission works. Wearing masks has been proven to reduce the likelihood of transmission. Getting vaccinated has been proven to reduce the likelihood of transmission, and in breakthrough cases, vaccines have proven effective at reducing the chances of hospitalization, long-term health issues and death.
I think people are scared, and when they see instances of someone who wears masks getting sick or someone who is vaccinated getting sick, it reinforces this idea that there’s no point in even trying. It’s OK to admit that masks and vaccines are not 100% effective, but the good news is that there are extremely effective actions we can take to slow the spread, take the pressure of ICUs and ERs, and give yourself and your loved ones a better chance of making it through this thing.
So when I’m standing onstage and only half the people in the audience are masking, I’m bummed. If you care about the community you live in, if you care about your family, your own health, wearing a mask is easy and simple. Don’t wear it because someone told you to. Wear it because you’ve educated yourself on the way airborne viral transmission functions and you give a damn.
Q: Finally, on MerleFest, any thoughts on playing this festival?
Answer: Playing MerleFest has been on our bucket list since my first band formed back in 2010. Honestly, we are so excited and grateful to be part of this.
Contact Lisa O’Donnell at 336-727-7420 or email@example.com.