Tuesday 12 April 2011
“I’m the most sophisticated hillbilly you’ll ever meet’.
When Michelle Shocked says this about herself, it’s hard not to crack up. ‘Hillbilly,’ after all, is no compliment. And frankly, it’s tough to reconcile that reflex image of a backwoods, overalls-and-a-smile hillbilly with this focused, erudite singer-songwriter. If such a creature exists, however, Shocked is its picture, sans Billy-Bob teeth. Come to think of it, after being ‘prematurely conceived’ to teenaged parents, she was born near the backdoor of East Texas’ Piney Woods.
Her upbringing was slightly more urbane. In early childhood, Shocked logged thousands of miles as a military brat, living in Massachusetts, Germany and Maryland, before returning to Texas in her teens. Until her early twenties, she experienced the dubious juxtaposition of school years spent with her fundamentalist Mormon, US Army-lifer stepfather and mother, and summers with her free-wheeling ‘late- blooming hippie’ autodidact father. Eager to expand her horizons, Shocked eventually decamped for San Francisco, assumed the peripatetic life of a community activist and, eventually, a touring musician.
Fittingly, there’s a phantom Texas taproot and that self-styled wanderlust in her music. Much like the work of her East Texas peers Willie Nelson, Victoria Williams and Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, Shocked’s songs hold fast to a definite core, but owe no stylistic allegiance — just like their itinerant, mercurial, utilitarian creator.
In a 24-year career that has seen critical acclaim at every juncture, she famously escaped major-label indentured servitude in 1996, subverting the artist-label relationship that helped lead to the current trend toward artistic self-containment.
She has made good use of her independence, releasing more critically-acclaimed albums on her Mighty Sound label. Her 2009 album, Soul of My Soul, was the latest of these. In 2010, she launched Roadworks, an ongoing, 5-year touring project which curates audience’s favorite songs while developing new unreleased material.
For example, 2011 Roadworks’ theme, ‘Campfire Girl’, celebrates the 25th anniversary of the release of her unauthorized debut album, The Texas Campfire Tapes. Her solo set will recapture the raw intimacy of a portrait of the artist as a young woman, and refresh memories of that audacious introduction. While she’s at it, don’t be surprised if she works a pitch for support of arts education in public schools into the act.