Michelle Shocked – Arkansas Traveler (1992)

FrontCover1Michelle Shocked (born Karen Michelle Johnston; February 24, 1962) is an American singer-songwriter. Her music entered the Billboard Hot 100, was nominated for Grammy award for Best Contemporary Folk Recording, and received a Folk Album of the Year at the CMJ New Music Awards …

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Arkansas Traveler is an alternative folk album released by American singer-songwriter Michelle Shocked in 1992. Her fourth album for Mercury Records, the songs focused around the roots of her music. The album included collaborations with several other artists, including Taj Mahal, Alison Krauss, Tony Levin and Norman Blake. Jack Irons plays drums at the beginning of track 6. Uncle Tupelo plays on track 6. (wikipedia)


One may feel a certain pity for Mercury Records when it took delivery of Michelle Shocked’s third album for the label, Arkansas Traveler. Mercury had signed the feisty country-folk singer/songwriter in the wake of the hoopla surrounding her first album, The Texas Campfire Tapes, an impromptu collection recorded on a cassette player at the 1986 Kerrville Folk Festival. Shocked eschewed a hefty advance in favor of greater artistic control and then delivered the well-received Short Sharp Shocked (1988), followed by Captain Swing (1989), something of a swing-band genre exercise. Both albums reached the Top 100 in Billboard and spent six-plus months in the charts. At first, Arkansas Traveler must have sounded like a breakthrough effort; it was certainly ambitious. Shocked was adapting old folk and country material such as “Soldier’s Joy,” “Frankie & Johnny,” and “Cotton Eyed Joe” with new arrangements and lyrics, and she was conducting sessions around the world with a host of impressive partners.


In Australia, she collaborated with Paul Kelly’s backup band, the Messengers, on “Weaving Way,” and she went to Ireland to record “Over the Waterfall” with the Hothouse Flowers. In the U.S., there were sessions in Chicago, IL, with Pops Staples of the Staple Singers (“33 RPM Soul”); Woodstock, NY, with Levon Helm and Garth Hudson of the Band (“Secret to a Long Life”); Chapel Hill, NC, with the Red Clay Ramblers (“Contest Coming [Cripple Creek]”); St. Charles, MO, with Uncle Tupelo (“Shaking Hands [Soldier’s Joy]”); Los Angeles with Taj Mahal (“Jump Jim Crow/Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah”); Memphis, TN, with Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown (“Hold Me Back [Frankie & Johnny]”); Wilkesboro, NC, with Doc Watson (“Strawberry Jam”); Franklin, TN, with Alison Krauss & Union Station (“Prodigal Daughter [Cotton Eyed Joe]”); Rising Fawn, GA, with Rising Fawn String Ensemble (“Blackberry Bottom”); Mountain View, AR, with Jimmy Driftwood (“Arkansas Traveler”); and Mineola, TX, with Dollars, Taxes, featuring her father, “Dollar Bill” Johnston, on mandolin (Woody Guthrie’s “Woody’s Rag”).


The music ranged from folk-rock to old-timey country, and Shocked interacted well with her many guests, reinvigorating the traditional tunes and remaking them in her own exuberant style. If they had a chance to think about it, the executives at Mercury might have dreamed of a PBS special featuring all the musicians and a home video to further expose and promote a release that might have seemed like a potential cross-genre smash. Then would have come the bombshell. Shocked, it seemed, had been inspired in her conception of the album by an interest in the history of blackface minstrelsy, which provided the source of such songs as “Jump Jim Crow,” and she wanted to appear in blackface on the cover of the album. Despite her contracted artistic control, Mercury rejected this desire, which of course would have constituted commercial (and perhaps career) suicide, but the label did allow her to write a sleeve note about her intentions and then felt required to add a disclaimer to the effect that her views “do not necessarily represent those of the musicians who have generously contributed their time and talent to this project.” One could certainly listen to and enjoy Arkansas Traveler while ignoring all this small-print, handwritten commentary in the album’s booklet, but of course critics couldn’t be expected to do that, and while praising the music, they also commented on the artist’s no doubt well-intentioned, but seemingly confused — or at least confusing — concept. As a result, Arkansas Traveler failed to sell and became Shocked’s last major-label effort. (by William Ruhlmann)


Leo Barnes (organ, saxophone)
Chris Frank (accordion)
Mitchell Froom (organ)
Levon Helm (mandolin, vocals)
Garth Hudson (accordion, keyboards)
Bernie Leadon (guitar, mandolin, banjo)
Fiachna O’Braonain (tin whistle, guitar)
Liam Ó Maonlaí (bodhrán, piano)
Peter O’Toole (bouzouki, bass)
Michelle Shocked (guitar, mandolin, vocals)
Bland Simpson (piano)
Buddy Fambro – Mark Goldenberg – Albert Lee – Pops Staples – Jay Farrar – Taj Mahal – Doc Watson – Tim Stafford – Norman Blake – Steve Connolly – Jimmy Driftwood – Max Johnston

Hassan Kahn – Jerry Scheff – Tony Levin – Jack Herrick – Jeff Tweedy – Harold Floyd – Steve Edelman – Jon Schofield – Barry Bales

Bob Murphy – Michael Holmes – Peter Bull

William T. Mason – Denny Fongheiser – Kenny Aronoff – Jerry Marotta – Jerry Fehily – Mike Heidorn – Waldo LaTowsky – Martin Parker – Michael Barclay – Jack IronsBooklet02A

01. 33 RPM Soul 4.10
02. Come A Long Way 4.43
03. Secret To A Long Life 3.50
04. Contest Coming (Cripple Creek) 3.36
05. Over The Waterfall 4.40
06. Shaking Hands (Soldier’s Joy) 3.25
07. Jump Jim Crow 3.32
08. Hold Me Back 5.10
09. Strawberry Jam 4.33
10. Prodigal Daughter (Cotton Eyed Joe) 6.43
11. Blackberry Blossom 3.31
12. Weaving Way 2.57
13.Arkansas Traveler 4.20
14. Woody’s Rag 2.50

All songs written by Michelle Shocked
except 14., written by Woody Guthrie



More from Michelle Shocked:

The official website:

Michelle Shocked – Captain Swing (1989)

FrontCover1Michelle Shocked (born Karen Michelle Johnston; February 24, 1962) is an American singer-songwriter. Her music entered the Billboard Hot 100, was nominated for Grammy award for Best Contemporary Folk Recording, and received a Folk Album of the Year at the CMJ New Music Awards.

Shocked was born Karen Michelle Johnston on February 24, 1962, in Dallas, Texas, at the Baylor University Medical Center. Her stepfather was in the US Army and the family moved from base to base, eventually settling in Gilmer, Texas. Her mother was Mormon and she was raised in that faith. Her mother had her committed to a psychiatric hospital for a time during years of drug abuse.Johnston went through a punk rock phase, wearing a Mohawk hairdo and squatting in abandoned buildings in San Francisco, California.

In 1984, Johnston adopted the stage name “Michelle Shocked,” a play on the expression “shell shocked,” she said in a 1992 interview with Green Left Weekly: “The term ‘Miss shell shocked’ is a direct reference to the thousand-yard stare, which was a term that they first used to describe the victims of shell-shock in World War I. These people from outward appearances had survived the war quite well when in fact inside their minds were blown. I first used that name in 1984 at the Democratic Convention in San Francisco where I was arrested for protesting and demonstrating against corporations who contribute money to both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party campaigns.”

Michelle Shocked01

Shocked received her first international exposure after Pete Lawrence recorded her performance on a portable tape recorder at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas. Lawrence released the tape in Europe as The Texas Campfire Tapes (1986) (later released as The Texas Campfire Takes). The album’s success brought major labels asking her to sign a contract. Shocked was resistant to what she saw as the machinations of the music industry, and worked to retain a degree of creative control.

Her first US success came with the release of her 1988 debut album, Short Sharp Shocked, on college radio rotations around the country, which was met with strong acclaim from listeners. The debut single, “Anchorage”, broke into the Billboard Hot 100, but a follow-up single from the album, “When I Grow Up”, did not chart. Short Sharp Shocked was the first album in what Shocked later described as a “trilogy” for Mercury Records.

Michelle Shocked02

The second album in the trilogy, Captain Swing, was released in 1989. Described by reviewer Chris Woodstra as an album of “swing and big-band music” that “no one expected,”[9] the album was promoted with the release of “On the Greener Side”, a gender-reversed parody of Robert Palmer’s 1986 single “Addicted to Love”, in which topless male models performed the motions made famous by the female models in Palmer’s video.

The trilogy concluded with her 1992 album, Arkansas Traveler. Her desire to have the cover portray her in blackface in tribute to the roots of the music featured on the album drew criticism and a change in the cover art. However, the album received little commercial notice, and Shocked parted ways with the label following an acrimonious lawsuit.

In 1995, Shocked contributed an original song to the soundtrack for the film Dead Man Walking called “Quality of Mercy.” In 1996, she released a studio version of an underground release (Kind-Hearted Woman (black cover)) on the short-lived Private Music label.

Michelle Shocked03

Starting in 2002 with the release of Deep Natural, Shocked established her own label, Mighty Sound. She reissued expanded versions of her entire catalog, made possible by having retained complete ownership of her work when she signed with Mercury in 1987.

An acoustic version of her song “How You Play the Game” was featured as the opening and credits soundtrack on the DVD of the 2004 documentary film Bush’s Brain.

Shocked continues to make music as an independent artist. In June 2005, she released a trilogy of albums called Threesome (Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, Mexican Standoff and Got No Strings). In May 2007, she released the album ToHeavenURide; and in September 2009, Soul of My Soul.

Soul of My Soul remains Shocked’s last released recording to date. She toured consistently through 2013, then took time off before resuming live performances and touring in 2016.

Michelle Shocked05

In 1992, Shocked married journalist Bart Bull. They divorced in 2004. She reported in 2007 that she was in a relationship with Disney artist David Willardson, with whom she had first worked in 2001 when he designed the branding for her record label Mighty Sound. Willardson has since designed album covers for Deep Natural and for Shocked’s album reissues. Willardson and Shocked share an artist’s studio in the Biscuit Company Lofts.

According to Gay 100 author Paul Russell, in 1989 she joked to a US broadcast television audience that the Grammy award for Best Contemporary Folk Recording, whose nominees included herself, eventual winner Tracy Chapman, Phranc, and Indigo Girls, should have been called “Best Lesbian Vocalist”. Shocked herself remembers that she joked the award “could have been called ‘They Might Be Lesbians'”. After an Earth Day performance in Chicago in April 1990, she gave an interview to Christie L. Nordhielm of Outlines, a Chicago newspaper for the gay community. Accompanied by future husband, journalist Bart Bull, she told Nordhielm she felt boxed in by listener expectations that she was either straight or gay; she said “I would like a much broader definition for myself.” She explained her wish to be politically and sexually subversive by saying, “I resent like hell that I was maybe 18 years old before I even heard the ‘L’ word. I mean, that’s understood, growing up sheltered in a Mormon environment. But it would have made all the difference for me had I grown up knowing that the reason I didn’t fit in, was because they hadn’t told me there were more categories to fit into.” She said she did not condone the outing activities engaged in by members of ACT UP. Since then, Shocked has been listed as bisexual in reference books,[20][21] and does not self-identify as a lesbian. In a 2013 interview with CNN, Shocked stated “I am, for the last 10 years, so deeply in love with a man that the idea of living my life without him is impossible. I know how much I love him, and knowing that passion that I have for him, would I ever want to deny that to anyone else? Absolutely not.”

Michelle Shocked06

While performing at the Wild Goose Festival in June 2011, a Christian event at which the inclusion of gay Christians was debated, Shocked responded to an audience member’s question about homosexuality by saying “Who drafted me as a gay icon? You are looking at the world’s greatest homophobe. Ask God what He thinks.”

On March 17, 2013, Shocked made an impromptu speech against same-sex marriage during a concert at Yoshi’s nightclub in San Francisco, which led some audience members to leave in protest and the club’s management to end the show. All venues eventually cancelled scheduled performances of her “Roadworks Tour” in response to reports of Shocked’s remarks. In a March 20, 2013, email to the news media, Shocked apologized, saying that her comments had been misinterpreted, and that she was not describing her own opinions about homosexuality, but rather those of some Christians. An audio recording of the performance was reported as contradicting Shocked’s post-performance explanation.

Michelle Shocked07

On April 1, 2013, Shocked appeared on CNN’s Piers Morgan Live to clarify her remarks. Morgan asked Shocked three times whether she was “homophobic.” Eventually, Shocked stated “If you want to keep this simple for the audience, let me just give you a straight no, I’m not homophobic. But the truth, I don’t think, lies in the simplicity. It’s in the nuance, and that’s been completely lost in this…” She said that the meaning behind her prior comments was misinterpreted.

A photograph of Shocked being detained during a protest that appears on the cover of her 1988 album Short Sharp Shocked was taken by Chris Hardy of the San Francisco Examiner at a protest in San Francisco during the 1984 Democratic National Convention. Years later, Shocked was arrested during the November 29, 2011, eviction of the Occupy Los Angeles movement.

Shocked was honored as having the Folk Album of the Year at the CMJ New Music Awards ceremony in late October 1989, taped in New York City for later broadcast. The award recognized the popularity of Short Sharp Shocked with college radio listeners.

Michelle Shocked04

Captain Swing is a mixed genre album by American folk singer-songwriter Michelle Shocked. It was first released by Mercury Records in 1989 and later reissued by Shocked’s own label Mighty Sound in 2004. It was named after Captain Swing, the pseudonymous rebel leader who penned threatening letters during the rural English Swing riots of 1830. The album was a cross-country inventory of swing musical styles—from Dixieland to Western, Big Band to BeBop. (wikipedia)


Shocked made a big jump from The Texas Campfire Tapes to Short Sharp Shocked, but no one expected the direction she would take for Captain Swing. Rather than continuing as a folky singer/songwriter, she opted instead to take on western swing and big-band music, complete with horn-heavy arrangements and bright orchestration. And although the cartoon image of her on the cover gives a smirk and a sly wink, the album is surprising devoid of irony. She treats the genre with affection and she’s obviously having a good time swinging. Captain Swing may have confused fans of Short Sharp Shocked, but the album has several great moments, and most of all, it offers a good time. (by Chris Woodstra)

And “Looks Like Mona Lisa” reminds me very much on “Hit The Road Jack” !


Pete Anderson (guitar, bass)
John Begzian (emulator program)
Lenny Castro (percussion)
Jeff Donavan (drums)
Skip Edwards (keyboards)
Freebo (a.k.a. Daniel Friedberg) (tuba)
Dominic Genova (bass)
Paul Glasse (mandolin)
Steve Grove (saxophone)
Don Reed (strings)
Zachary Richard (accordion)
Michelle Shocked (vocals, guitar)
Beverly Dahlke-Smith (saxophone, clarinet)
David Stout (trombone)
Lee Thornburg (trumpet)
Dusty Wakeman (bass)
James Cruce (drums on 02.)


01. God Is A Real Estate Developer 3.13
02. On The Greener Side 2.56
03. Silent Ways 2.40
04. Sleep Keeps Me Awake 2.44
05. The Cement Lament 3.07
06. (Don’t You Mess Around with) My Little Sister 2.38
07. Looks Like Mona Lisa 2.32
08. Too Little Too Late 2.15
09. Streetcorner Ambassador 3.28
10. Must Be Luff 2.44
11. Russian Roulette (Mystery Song) (hidden track) 3.33

All songs written by Michelle Shocked
except 01., written by Michelle Shocked & Matt Fox




The official website: