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Michelle Shocked

With echoes of iconic folk stars JOAN BAEZ and dust-bowl troubadour WOODY GUTHRIE, urban singer-songwriter MICHELLE SHOCKED (born Karen Michelle Johnston, February 24, 1962 in Gilmer, East Texas), her finger-picking cool and lyrical prowess was forged by her formative teenage years.
After a childhood spent moving around army bases with her stepfather, Michelle experienced a turbulent adolescence which included a spell in a psychiatric hospital (committed by her Mormon fundamentalist mother) and a stint as a radical anarcho-punk squatter in San Francisco; yes, all grist for the songwriting mill (and inspiration for her adopted SHOCKED surname/moniker). Having journeyed from Texas to New York via Amsterdam, Michelle’s initial break came in 1986 when she was talent-spotted at the Kerrville Folk Festival by Englishman and soon-to-be Cooking Vinyl bod Pete Lawrence; the wannabe field-recording enthusiast taped an informal campfire-side set on a Walkman. It was a break in which SHOCKED was initially unsure about, and understandably she was suspicious of the machinations of the music industry – much like her hero of the past WOODY GUTHRIE.
The recordings were eventually released in late ‘86 as THE TEXAS CAMPFIRE TAPES {*7}, Michelle no doubt, erm… shocked (ouch!) to find herself at the top of the UK indie charts. She premiered the majority of the set at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, classy songs as `5 A.M. In Amsterdam’, `Down On Thomas St.’ and `Fogtown’ complete with authentic crickets; the CD featured versions of PAUL SIMON’s `Stranded In A Limousine’ and LEADBELLY’s `Goodnight, Irene’.
Once again, although with much trepidation, the singer eventually relented to a deal; the massive Polygram corporation signing her to London Records in Britain and Mercury in the States.
In keeping with her fiercely held beliefs and constant striving for integrity, SHOCKED reportedly made sure that she retained some creative control, the singer vindicated by the critical and commercial success of her debut album.
Produced by Pete Anderson, SHORT SHARP SHOCKED (1988) {*8} – as the title and cover shoot might suggest (Michelle depicted in a police stranglehold) – the Nashville-styled record was a defiant rabble of engaging protest songs combining roots folk with rock and pop accessibility. Among the highlights were the rootsy `When I Grow Up’, the lilting `Anchorage’ and the affecting `Graffiti Limbo’, an elegy for murdered street artist Michael Stewart; she also covered JEAN RITCHIE’s `The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore’.
Although the long-player made the UK Top 40 and garnered a groundswell of support, a follow-up album CAPTAIN SWING (1989) {*5} was way off the mark, moving away from her lone acoustic-folk approach in favour of more ambitious western swing arrangements. While SHOCKED was criticised in some quarters for political preaching, her more hardcore fans thought the record wasn’t radical enough.
Casting these complaints aside, SHOCKED went off on a musical pilgrimage of sorts, touring America WOODY GUTHRIE-style and recording with an array of respected roots musicians including TAJ MAHAL, HOTHOUSE FLOWERS, POPS STAPLES, DOC WATSON, The RED CLAY RAMBLERS, CLARENCE “GATEMOUTH” BROWN, LEVON HELM & GARTH HUDSON and the brilliant UNCLE TUPELO. Issued in 1991 as ARKANSAS TRAVELER {*7}, the star-studded set reclaimed some of the singer’s lost critical ground, although it failed to make much of an impact on the charts except in Britain; the finale was a revamp of GUTHRIE’s `Woody’s Rag’. Unhappy with the way she was being treated by her record label, SHOCKED subsequently sued the company and self-financed her next album KIND HEARTED WOMAN (1994) {*6}, the record receiving a belated official release two years later. With her work subsequently pressed for independent releases (i.e. the label-baiting ARTISTS MAKE LOUSY SLAVES (1996) {*4} – a collaboration with HOTHOUSE FLOWERS’ Fianchna O’Braonain – and GOOD TIMES (1998) {*7}), it was indeed no surprise that Michelle went “indie” for her post-millennium sets on Mighty Sound from DEEP NATURAL (2002) {*6} to her most recent rootsy (bluegrass-meets-gospel) deliveries TO HEAVEN U RIDE (2007) {*6} – a live artefact from 2003 – and SOUL OF MY SOUL (2009) {*6}; check out her re-takes of SISTER ROSETTA THARPE’s `Strange Things Happening Every Day’ and The BAND’s `The Weight’, among others. Of course, one could not go without mentioning her three simultaneously-released albums in summer 2005, namely the rootsy potpourri DON’T ASK DON’T TELL {*6}, the Disney-sanctioned GOT NO STRINGS {*6} and the Latin-American blues collision MEXICAN STANDOFF {*5}.
© MC Strong 1994/GRD-BG/GFD2 // rev-up MCS Apr2015

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