“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, she was born in or at least near the backwoods of East Texas — and get this — to a carny father and a fresh-faced high-school mother after being conceived, if memory serves, “in the backseat of my Uncle Huby’s Chevy at the prom.”
Her upbringing was more well-rounded. In her early childhood, Shocked logged thousands of miles as a military brat, living in Massachusetts, Germany and Maryland, before returning to Texas. She lived there until her early twenties, experiencing the stark contrast — and copious benefits — of having a fundamentalist Mormon mother, Army lifer stepfather, and hippie teacher-slash-“ultimate autodidact” father. Eager to further expand her horizons, Shocked eventually decamped for San Francisco and, ultimately, the peripatetic life of 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 creators. Shocked identifies strongly with her musical compatriots, and not just because they’re from her neck of the woods. “My family was welfare class,” says Shocked, “and that makes you really, really, white trash. [These artists] helped remove class bias because they have all been given honorary middle-class value because of what they’ve achieved in their music.”
Shocked has likewise transcended class bias, while retaining the parts that make sense, in a 23-year career that has seen critical acclaim at every juncture. In the early 1990s, she famously escaped major-label indentured servitude, 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 lucky thirteenth album, Soul of My Soul, is the latest of these.
Two intense, seemingly divergent, emotions — love and anger — dovetail on Soul, a passionate album in every sense. “I think the meditation these past several years, ever since I stopped drinking, really, has been to jettison rage,” says Shocked, “without losing the ability to feel strong feelings.” Two “strong currents” in her present life conspired to teach her that lesson. Artist David Willardson, “the Official Love of My Life,” is one such tide, and Shocked raves about his warm and nurturing nature. On the flipside is her “nemesis,” the Bush Administration “and their alleged enlightened self-interest. Between the two of them, my emotions have run quite high in recent years.”
The sentiments on Soul of My Soul are couched mainly in straight-four, no frills, rock ‘n’ roll — just the context for Shocked’s two-pronged passion play. Among the songs about her new love is the acoustic ballad “True Story,” where Shocked sings directly to Willardson. “The producer [Devin Powers] said he wasn’t getting enough emotion from the vocal performance,” says Shocked. “I knew exactly what to do.” Pouring her heart out over the phone, she nailed “one perfect, passionate take” that culminates in a deluge of happy tears. Willardson also inspired the ebullient, Stones-y anthem “Love’s Song,” a spacey Kate Bush-meets-U2 meditation on the couple’s future called “Heart to Heart,” and the lusty “Paperboy,” a snapshot from Willardson’s youth (when he lost his job for neglecting his duties to chase a girl).
Clearly there are no love songs for the Bush Administration, at least in the traditional sense. Shocked does proffer a ballad, “Other People,” that at first blush sounds like a kiss-off to an untrue lover — which it is, except Shocked sings to Bush’s America, the ugly, war-mongering face of the country she loves. “I used to rant, ‘Bush, pull out like your father should have.’ Now I say, ‘I love you America, but I think we should see other people.’” She gets feistier on the Steve Earle-ish folk-rocker “The Ballad of the Battle of the Ballot and the Bullet,” which she sings “because I can.” On “Liquid Prayer” — Soul’s lone soul tune — Shocked meditates on tears cried to a God she counts on to provide the Kleenex. In the ironically tropical “Pompeii,” she frets over the fate of a “broken democratic state” beholden to corporate compromise and “entwined in orgiastic lies, with the top about to blow.”
Shocked says her “vexation” fuels these Soul songs. She’s righteously, morally and intellectually pissed off at the state of the nation over the last eight years — but instead of tossing beer cans, she flings measured words. For example, “Giantkiller” is a snarling punk rock anthem where Shocked artfully and poetically vents her venom, in turn giving her message added philosophical oomph.
. . . that fact in the back of my mind
I meant to meet the world
A pocket full of rock and wood
But I was fearless, I was bold
Taking aim so carefully
I set my stone and let it fly
And when the giant fell to earth
None more surprised than I
If there’s a more eloquent way to say you’re chuckin’ rocks at a big ol’ jackass, well, leave it to a sophisticated hillbilly to find it. And really, that’s the nut and the shell of Soul of My Soul: it’s a reconciliation of our most gentle and base aspects by demonstrating that we are neither by default or circumstance, and both by choice. “It was Zen and the art of the Dunk-Tank,” Shocked smiles. “I had a target, I took aim and I hit, I believe, a bull’s-eye.”
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For more information on Michelle Shocked, please contact:
Cary Baker • (323) 656-1600 • firstname.lastname@example.org