Michelle Shocked (born Michelle Johnston) comes from way deep East Texas at the Louisiana line, from the same tiny town as Freddie King, from the same neck of the woods as Leadbelly and Gatemouth and Lightnin’ and Lemon. Her family was too poor to own many records, but they made music at home. Her story is a runaway’s tale of homelessness, and of being perhaps the last American to receive the mixed blessing of being field recorded. Finally, she’s the only known major label artist to own and publish her complete catalog.
After two years of community college, Michelle put herself through the University of Texas in Austin but the strain led to a little post-grad work in the Baylor Hospital psych ward. However, it brought her to her senses, and she realized you can be poor anywhere. So she split for San Francisco and New York, then air-hitched a ride to Paris. While knee-deep in the pursuit of a Master’s degree in Street Studies – pirate radio, poetry, and a bit of anti-this-and-that, she got homesick.
The annual songwriters’ gathering at the Kerrville Folk Festival, where she volunteered and hung out with friends, brought a curious specimen in 1986. An Englishman who said he was a journalist heard her one night out among the campfires, and asked if she would play some songs for his Sony Walkman. But he neglected to mention that he was actually a partner in a brand new British independent record label. Michelle played some songs out there that night, his tape recorder sitting on a log as crickets sang and trucks downshifted, and she told some stories. Michelle didn’t know it at the time, but like some of her heroes, Leadbelly and Muddy Waters, she was being “field recorded”. That tape, made on a Walkman with batteries so weak it ran too quick when played back at normal speed, was aired repeatedly on the BBC.
Michelle was in New York a few months later when a friend came back from Amsterdam with a magazine. Inside was a flexi-disc of “Who Cares?” by Michelle Shocked. But she didn’t record a song called “Who Cares?” – didn’t even have a song called “Who Cares!” Michelle played the flexi on a turntable, and sure enough, it was her voice, saying, “This is my most recent song and it’s called...oh, who cares!”
Originally released without her knowledge or permission, the Texas Campfire Tapes, as it was called, became her “debut” recording. She’d grown up in a tradition of bluegrass and blues and picker-poets, but now she was a British pop phenomenon. Michelle played her very first show at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. Over the next eighteen months, she found herself working for a manager who was also her booking agent, publisher, record label boss, suitor and landlord. Cooking Vinyl was shopping Michelle to major labels, licensing her record around the world, booking gigs, collecting commissions and royalties, shipping her and her guitar C.O.D., while discretely cutting a custom-label deal for itself. It was as if she’d fallen into a new job at the circus getting shot out of a cannon. Despite the disarray, Michelle Shocked had a plan.
She risked signing with a major label, Mercury, in an attempt to change the system from within. Having turned down the label’s advance for the sake of owning her work, Michelle had a cultural agenda, too. She organized her songs into a trilogy of LPs that was meant to show where she’d come from. After her first taste of circus-cannon celebrity, Michelle needed something more substantial than breadcrumbs to mark her way back home.
Part One - Short Sharp Shocked - was a picker-poet album. Part Two - Captain Swing - was blues with an upbeat. Part Three of the trilogy - Arkansas Traveler - conceived before she’d even recorded Short Sharp Shocked - was a tribute to the fiddle tunes she’d played with her dad and brother on mandolin, banjo and such. Michelle pursued the hidden roots of that music, and those old familiar tunes. Writing new lyrics that sounded ancient, she traveled three continents to play with her heroes, peers and a few rank strangers. Pops Staples, Doc Watson, Gatemouth Brown, Jimmie Driftwood, Taj Mahal, and Alison Krauss were part of that adventure. Recorded on steamboats, in barns, log cabins, and even recording studios, Arkansas Traveler was an epic. Michelle had found her way home.
Michelle shares, “I read somewhere that 11 a.m. Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America. I remember thinking, ‘If believers in ‘brotherly love’ can’t get together, what chance do the rest of us have?’ Living in LA at that time, I went down to South Central, to the West Angeles Church of God in Christ (C.O.G.I. C.), one of LA’s largest African-American congregations. Breaching a 20-year estrangement from organized religion on the grounds that the choir was great, I returned each Sunday, inspired by that great vernacular tradition. But I went one Sunday too often. Looking down, I was surprised to see my feet making the altar call that morning. I got saved, and that changed most everything.”
Overnight, Michelle had a new artistic direction, composing a series of prayers, and booking a studio to begin recording a new album. But on the day the sessions began, Mercury balked. Though they did exercise their option for another album, they would release no funds and soon after sent out a cease-and-desist order, which ended any discussions with other labels. Rand Hoffman, currently head of Business and Legal Affairs at Universal, took Michelle in his office a few weeks later, closed the door, and explained that the label would never properly promote her albums, because, as he put it, she had “cut too good a deal” for herself. He was trying to force a renegotiation of the master rights she’d protected.
Michelle refused. So from 1993 to 1996, she toured relentlessly, tallying up 238 performances. It was the only outlet she had, and Michelle was determined to exercise her creativity. The result was a cycle of bleak story-songs called Kind Hearted Woman, sold only at shows. In 1995, she initiated an artist’s rights lawsuit, citing a violation of her civil liberties under the 13th Amendment (which prohibits slavery), and she was released from her contract. A second version of Kind Hearted Woman came out a little later on BMG.
By then, Michelle was living in New Orleans. In 1996 she recorded a duet album, Artists Make Lousy Slaves, with Fiachna O’Braonain of Hothouse Flowers. She also wrote a song cycle, yet unrecorded, inspired by collaborations with Allen Toussaint and New Orleans brass bands. During a yearlong sabbatical in 1997, Michelle worked with a grassroots campaign in Louisiana, in a groundbreaking effort against environmental racism. Then, in 1998, she released Good News, recorded with the Annointed Earls, also sold only at shows.
Returning to Los Angeles in 1999, Michelle started another song cycle, inspired by the Spanglish culture of her new neighborhood. And in 2000, she collaborated once again with her longtime road partner, Fiachna O’Braonain, on a millenium cycle of 30 songs.
In 2001 Michelle started an independent label, Mighty Sound, and released a second version of Good News, called Deep Natural. In 2003 she began the reissue campaign for her catalog, beginning with The Texas Campfire Takes and Short Sharp Shocked. In April 2004 Captain Swing was reissued and now, finally, Arkansas Traveler.
In an ambitious move, Michelle Shocked released three albums on the same day in 2005. Released separately and as a box set, Threesome consists of Don't Ask Don't Tell (described by Shocked as Short Sharp Shocked all grown up), Got No Strings (a selection of Disney tunes sung in a swing style) and Mexican Standoff (a blues and Latin-tinged collection of songs).
She's to be commended for her refusal to be pigeonholed, and even if not all of Threesome is a success, it's certainly a worthy listen from a woman who's been away for far too long.
Two intense, seemingly divergent emotions love and anger dovetail on Michelle Shocked’s Soul of My Soul (2009), a passionate album in every sense. The sentiments are couched mainly in straight-forward, no-frills rock n roll . . . just the context for Shocked’s two-pronged passion play.