The gospel according to Michelle Shocked

“My approach to music has always been about the live experience,” Michelle Shocked asserted in a recent interview. She’s on the road in support of her new release, the gospel-inspired Deep Natural (Mighty Sound, 2002).

“I went to church for the singing,” she says, “but stayed for the message.”

The gospel, any kind of gospel, is about more than preaching. It’s a living message that you carry with you, wherever you may roam. I remember when Arkansas Traveler (Mercury, 1991) came out. Four of us piled into a car and drove the back-country roads, singing along as Shocked’s songs burst boldly from the tape deck like a big sister imparting a little life-wisdom. We had to listen to the music in motion — it wasn’t meant for sitting still.

Maybe that’s because Shocked, herself, is a woman in motion. She hit the road at 16, forsaking a fundamentalist Mormon home for the freedom and adventure of busking and squatting. At one point, her mother had her committed to a mental institution, where a run-in with electroshock therapy became the basis for the singer’s stage name.

Not that her clashes with authority stopped there. A photograph of Shocked being restrained by police during a political protest eventually wound up on the cover of her second album, Short, Sharp, Shocked (Mercury, 1988). Though Shocked drifted throughout the U.S. and Europe, she remained rooted to folk music and politics. Her first record deal was a fluke: She was field-recorded (a.k.a. robbed) while volunteering at the Kerrville Folk Festival. The Walkman(TM) tape of Shocked doing what she loved — playing her guitar around a Texas campfire — wound up being released as The Texas Campfire Tapes (Cooking Vinyl Records, 1986), and Shocked was notified only after her songs were in international distribution.

The unauthorized release led to a record deal with Mercury in 1988, and three more albums. Captain Swing (1989) made an unexpected move away from the folk/punk sound of Shocked. Blending her Texas roots with a 1940s Big Band sound, she threw horns into the mix at a time when no one was using brass. The third album with Mercury, Arkansas Traveler, was a tribute to the blackface minstrel tradition. She reintroduced such poignant classics as “Cotton Eye Joe,” which, when dovetailed with “Prodigal Daughter,” drew listeners to the gray area between racism and sexism.

Despite the success of Traveler, Shocked parted ways with Mercury when the label refused to produce her next project. “I wasn’t going to be a record company slave, and they don’t like that,” Shocked told the Detroit News. She won a lawsuit against Mercury based on the 13th Amendment — the one banning slavery.

From there, she just kept moving. Joining forces with Hot House Flowers’ Fiachna O’Braonain, she independently recorded Artists Make Lousy Slaves (1994) and Kind Hearted Woman (1996), selling them only at her shows until she could reclaim ownership of her catalogue.

So where has Shocked been in the decade since Traveler hit the record stores? In some ways, she’s where she’s always been: ambling around the world making music. At the same time, she’s come a long way from her punk-rock days hanging with the N.Y.C. homeless and waiting in line outside CBGB’s. She’s also a far piece from the early angst-folk of Campfire and Shocked.

“I no longer have to spell it out for my audience,” she says. “The role of the spokesman isn’t to educate, it’s to congregate.” Shocked is a bit of an archaeologist, continually sifting through musical strata seeking a deeper truth. She dove headlong into the African-American spiritual tradition, looking for the roots of folk music. “Even though my audience is diverse, I hadn’t crossed the color line,” she admits. Visiting a predominantly black Christian church, she began writing a gospel album — and ended up converted.

“Guess I went one too many Sundays,” she jokes.

Spirituality inevitably seeped into Shocked’s work. “I came to an understanding of what gospel music would sound like as sung by Michelle Shocked,” she says about Deep Natural. “I had a vision and I didn’t deter from it.”

The album is what it says: deep. It’s a soul-aching, hungry, haunted, New Orleans-entranced sort of deep. Shocked sings the blues like she means it. She pours herself into the music, her voice exploding over horns, guitar and reverb. She makes you want to get right with your savior, throw your hands in the air and testify. She tells a tale, carrying the listener with her the way most musicians wish they could. “In this world but of this world /I will never be/I can lift my eyes to glory /You can’t take my joy from me,” she wails in “Joy.”

If Shocked’s stuff seemed grounded before, these songs are subterranean. Shocked is the minstrel turned bard, creating aural history as she goes. “Little Billie danced the blues /Scratched his coffin with her shoes,” she sings in “Little Billie,” a song about a woman burying her son.

This is not a sad song — it’s a shout-hallelujah song. But it goes deeper still. Deep Natural comes with a twin recording, Dub Natural, a mostly instrumental set. Dub, the scion of Jamaican music techies working battered soundboards, blends instrumental prowess with space-age techno to create a vibe that speaks beyond lyrics.

Dub Natural says “step back from what Michelle Shocked is known for — lyrics and storytelling — and check out her groove,” the singer asserts. The two discs together are, if unusual, a vision fully realized. The band, these days, consists of O’Braonain, “a rock star among mere mortals,” as Shocked calls him on her Web site, on guitar, vocals and tin whistle; Rich Armstrong on trumpet, vocals and bass; Peter Buck (no relation to REM) playing drums and walls; Jamie Brewer on bass and additional vocals from Sean Dancy.

Shocked is moved by the spirit in more ways than one: She credits the ethereal presences of Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, John Lee Hooker and others in the making of Natural — but her ultimate source of inspiration is less concrete.

“When you’re looking for peace, it can’t be found,” she warns on the album’s final song. “You know it’s true/Peace finds you.”

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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