Blues & Gospel & Country & Western Swing & Honkytonk & Folk from East Texas & Texarkana
Born in Dallas, raised in Kelsey, just outside Gilmer, in East Texas’ Upshur County; living in London and Amsterdam and New York City and Los Angeles and New Orleans. . . . long before the world knew her, Michelle Shocked knew the world. First as an Army brat and then as a rambling troubadour, a truly intrepid traveler, a real East Texas rambler. She has wandered a far wider world than most of us ever will, mixing musical modes every bit as determinedly as she crossed borders, but the world she came from is just as hard for an outsider to imagine.
East Texas can be the most mundane of places, the land of the pick-up trucks and single-wide trailers, but the closer you get to the Piney Woods, to Caddo Lake, to the curious blurring of borders between Texas and Louisiana and Arkansas, to the point where the woods turn to swamp, to where the line between land and water changes day to day, the more there’s a mystery in the thick air.
A look at a few musicians who were raised within a stone’s throw or so of Michelle Shocked’s neck of the Piney Woods at the border between East Texas and Louisiana, in that big tiny Texarkana universe there between Dallas and Shreveport, may well offer as much insight into the mongrel mixture that is Michelle Shocked’s music as anything ever could.
Because they do it different in Texas. They shuffle the blues, and they don’t hold to the odd idea that blues comes in pre-packaged, shrink-wrapped, twelve-bar lengths. They walk the bar and boot the bottles and honk the sax and swing down low all the while. Music and dancing go together always — always — and it seems weird and strange and just plain wrong to separate them, to bust the groove. Guitars and horns go together like cornbread and beans; those fabled Texas shuffles travel along through like a freight train running fast. loose, and light way late in the night.
Here’s a fact: music never comes free. It’s earned, and paid for, or stolen sometimes, but there is always a price. Always. For some folks (and definitely, certainly, for Michelle Shocked), East Texas is best considered a place to have “..come from…” Signs that once invited “colored” Americans to get out of town before the sun goes down still stand, paint slapped over but the words visible still. In the summer of 1998, James Byrd, Jr., a black man from Jasper County, had his face spray-painted black and was dragged to death behind a pickup truck by three white men. His grave has since been desecrated.