Michelle Shocked, taking stock success and the singer’s radical politics

March 15, 1989

Michelle Shocked — of course that's not her real last name, more a bridge between her first name and her occasional mental state. She calls her music "folk with a vengeance" or "hard-core folk," which was certainly the case with her debut album, "The Texas Campfire Tapes." Like fellow string bean Texan Buddy Holly, Shocked made her first recording with the crickets. Not the bass-drum-guitar Crickets, but those little leg-rubbing crickets. How those tapes came to the public is already pop legend — the musical equivalent of Lana Turner being discovered in a Hollywood drugstore.

In 1986, Shocked (her real last name remains a secret) was at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas — as a fan, not a performer — when a visiting Brit, Pete Lawrence, heard her swapping songs with other festival goers on the fringes. After he asked whether he could record her on his Sony Walkman, Lawrence sat Shocked by a campfire (hence the title), and simply turned on the little tape recorder, which captured not only Shocked but assorted chirping crickets and cars passing by on the interstate; the slight variability in the vocals has been attributed to low batteries.

Next thing Shocked knew, the album was released in England, which has an ongoing fascination with American primitives and outsiders: "Texas Campfire Tapes" quickly went to the top of the independent charts, probably the first album that cost more to buy than it did to record. Soon afterward, PolyGram came courting and Shocked moved into the major league of pop, with her first studio album winning many critical honors and earning her a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. Tonight, Shocked performs at the 9:30 club.

Shocked, 26, was raised in East Texas between the extremes of a Mormon fundamentalist mother and stepfather and a "devout atheist" father. She ran away from home at 16 and gradually embraced a radical individualism that took her to San Francisco, Europe and New York and involved her in a number of social causes (the brutal photo on the cover of her recent album "Short Sharp Shocked" is from a newspaper clip of the singer being arrested in a 1984 fair-housing demonstration in San Francisco).

Back then, music was simply a part of Shocked's life, not the focus of a career. Social idealism, fueled by her experiences as a homeless person and as a two-time psychiatric patient (she was committed by her mother until insurance payments ran out), was the driving force. That led her to live in squats and work for less-than-minimal wages. "I was so extreme," she recalls. "I wanted to live on $3,000 a year because that's what you can make without paying taxes, which would then buy bombs which would then be dropped on people in South America."

Someone suggested to Shocked that such positions made her "just another knee-jerk anarchist," she laughs. "Well, like most of my politics, they're aspirations. I try to be real true to my roots and not adopt an ideology to substitute for my ignorance."

The move to PolyGram, the success of both the new album and its singles, "Anchorage" and "When I Grow Up," videos for those songs, the media attention — all have forced Shocked to take stock of her political outlook. "Now I'm caught in a different sort of argument altogether," she admits.

No one seemed to have noticed that the publishing company for Shocked's "Campfire" songs was based in Washington: The address turned out to be the same as the Youth International Party, the Yippies ("That's my publishers," she chuckles). Now, Shocked has been embraced by the yuppies as well, an irony not lost on her. "You drop out of the system and you write about what you see, and as a consequence of that, you've got something they want to buy. So then you start looking at what you can do with the opportunity and you try and balance it. Now I'm caught in the yuppie myth that I always claimed was a media contrivance, where people who worked outside the system thought they could work inside the system to change it. I don't believe it, but that's exactly what I've done."

Still, the idea of using her success to subvert the pop oligarchy must be sweet for Shocked, who had never even performed in a club or concert when her first album topped the British independent album charts. She'd participated in the music fringes in Austin, where songwriters Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt were the modern edge of older influences like Big Bill Broonzy and Leadbelly (who, come to think of it, also was discovered in a field recording of sorts); and in San Francisco, where Shocked connected to the hard-core punk/skateboard scene, the latest wrinkles of alternative culture stretching back to hippies, beatniks and bohemians before them.

In New York, she'd also been a squatter and a part of the Lower East Side "antifolk" scene, a Mohawk-haired fiddler playing from the back of The Fort cooperative, "looking for alternatives to the West Village folk scene, which was desperately James Taylorish, the legacy being Suzanne Vega and so forth." And, Shocked says, "their orientation was to getting a record contract rather than playing to the people in the very room. That was a big shock after coming from Austin where no one had those ambitions, which may be why Austin's such a great nurturing environment for so many songwriters."

Of course, not everyone can be discovered in a Texas field. Still, that dichotomy of approaches between New York and Austin has had little effect on Shocked, who feels "there's no such thing as too laid back when it comes to music. My whole thing is to decentralize it and let people know you don't need a record to make good music. It all started as recording something that was already going on, not what was being created in the studio; now it's a whole art medium, and that's fine for some people. Personally I've never owned a record player in my life."

Growing up in Gilmer, Tex., after years of country-skipping with her military stepfather and mother, Shocked was denied music and television in her home, but when she spent summers with her father, he not only turned her on to roots American music but frequently took her to bluegrass festivals, where she honed her self-taught skills on guitar and fiddle. "That's where a lot of my vision comes from," Shocked says of the festivals. "If you want the best jam, you've got to make your own. It's about getting together and entertaining and amusing yourself ..."

Although she has sometimes trundled into the "folk revival" ghetto with Tracy Chapman and Suzanne Vega, Shocked prefers the latitude offered by the word "roots" because "it has a lot of the same meanings as 'folk' and it doesn't eliminate things that aren't white and English." She's been a participant and supporter of the WOMAD (World of Music and Dance) festival movement, which brings together the cultures of five continents under one (hopefully blue) sky. At one festival, Shocked shared the stage with the 22-member Burundi Drummers and Dancers, and "even though I'm just a girl with a guitar, I feel a lot of common bond with what's happened with them: They've been taken out of their context, out of their community, out of their natural environment and put into a strange one. Then, with a couple of spotlights and reviews, suddenly you've got a scene."

Or a community. She's recently been reading '60s music activist John Sinclair's "Guitar Army," and "I'm rather inspired right now by the idea that you have to have a culture to correspond with the politics, which is already true in the women's scene, from which I get a lot of support. Many feminists from the '70s have gone into the mainstream and used feminism as a tool for getting more power."

These days, though, Shocked lives on a small houseboat on the Thames in London. She calls herself a "dissident expatriate." "I just felt the political climate of America excluded me from that definition {of being} American," she explains. "Of course my roots are American through and through, and the fact that I left the country wasn't for tax reasons, but for political reasons and to create a poignant sense that I love this country so much that if I can make a point by leaving it ..."

Well, you can take the girl out of the country but you can't take the country out of the girl, apparently. "Short Sharp Shocked" was a virtual catalogue of American music, from old-timey, bluegrass and country to blues, rockabilly, swing and even punk. As committed as she is personally, there is little overt politics in her music. "I feel what I've done by keeping the record fairly subtle is to make people curious enough to come see me live, and that's where I put in my two cents' worth," she says conspiratorially.

Shocked is already putting together her next album, which has a working title of "The Swing Vote."

"I've chosen a strategy which could be called entertaining the troops as opposed to preaching to the converted," she says. "There will be a whole spectrum of swing styles because I want to put forth the argument that swing is a feeling and that everything else is just style. I'm hoping that will give the strength to carry on this argument about a pan-cultural movement based around roots music, because it's the swing feeling in music that attracts us. That's why I can love hard core and rap and blues and folk. It's also what makes music go beyond just lyrics."

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