The education of Michelle Shocked

Once portrayed as a bumpkin, she's finally wised up

Michelle Shocked doesn't get back to Dallas much anymore. She lives in New Orleans now, and though she lives in a state bordering Texas, she resides just far enough from her old home that she doesn't much think about Texas anymore--except, maybe, when she writes a song. But even then the influences exist only in her subconscious. Shocked is tied to Texas by music, but not much else.

Shocked used to visit Texas a lot, usually to see her father in Dallas, a mandolin player named "Dollar" Bill Johnston who had a profound impact upon his young daughter. Dollar Bill used to take his young daughter, Michelle, and her brother, Wilco's Max Johnston, to bluegrass festivals around the country, and it was there that she picked up the folk and country sounds that would mark her best work. But Shocked says she has not been back to Texas in two years, since her last tour through these parts, and she doesn't much keep in contact with her father anymore.

"I'm not on good terms with him," she explains in a deadpan voice. Shocked's mother, who was divorced from Dollar Bill when Michelle was a kid, once committed Michelle to a Dallas psychiatric hospital 12 years ago. Michelle stayed there till the insurance money ran out, then she left home and never looked back except to see her father. Now, she has removed the rearview mirror altogether. "My father invited my mother to the hospital when my grandmother died, and I thought that was pretty insensitive."

Such are the prices of growing up--in private, and in a music business that demands full disclosure from its practitioners. Shocked is no longer the same young woman whose first album was released without her knowledge almost a decade ago, nor is she the same would-be Woody Guthrie traveling the land with her acoustic guitar and short, sharp haircut singing of desolate lands and desolate souls.

She has gotten off her major label and become an independent in every sense of the word, taken control of a career she once allowed others to direct, assumed ownership of her own songs after leaving them for so long in the hands of others. And even more to the point, the folkie has gone funk, hiring old Motown sessionmen for her track, "Quality of Mercy," on the Dead Man Walking soundtrack and whatever album she might end up doing next.

For so long, Shocked was portrayed in the press as a hillbilly, a simple country girl who wrote pointed country-folk songs about a hard land in hard times. When The Texas Campfire Tapes was released in 1986, writers often repeated the same story of how she recorded the songs on a fan's weak-batteried Walkman only to find out the fan, British record-label owner Pete Lawrence, had released them in England to critical acclaim and commercial success. Shocked was living on the verge of homelessness in New York City, where she worked as a squatters' activist, when she discovered the album had reached the top of the British indie charts.

No one ever bothered to ask if Shocked got any money from the record, or if the label had her permission to release the tapes in the first place. It's part of her untold story that she had to sue Lawrence for the rights to her songs, and it was only the first arduous and painful legal battle she would endure during the course of her relatively short career. Now, Shocked refers to Texas Campfire Tapes as "The Texas Campfire Thefts," and though she owns the rights, she'd rather they not remain in print.

"It was a lawsuit that caused this very bitter attitude on my part, which is where I picked up the term 'Texas Campfire Thefts,'" she says. "That was settled out of court eventually, but I went through a real seven-year English, powdered-wig, m'lord-m'lady kind of legal battle, and it was hard. Now, it feels like a tremendous opportunity to rewrite this history of exploitation. It's like reclaiming history for those who have been exploited, and it's a real victory, but it was draining."

Throughout the late '80s and early '90s, rock journalists painted Shocked as an innocent at home, and they treated her much as writers treated Leadbelly when he was "rescued" from poverty and prison by musicologist-plunderer Alan Lomax--almost as a freak behind thin glass, there to be ogled by the smart white city folk who file by. Articles that coincided with the releases of short, sharp, Shocked in 1988 and Captain Swing in 1989 read almost exactly the same, even as the music grew from bare-bones folk to larger-than-life swing.

She remained the waiflike Texan who ran away from home, traveled the world with the homeless and the derelict, then came home to rediscover her roots. She was Guthrie traveling the hard land with a guitar and a notebook, singing her diaries. She was the protesting folkie who landed in jail protesting the injustices of the world. She was a symbol.

"Before, the story was so perfect and pat," Shocked says of her earliest days in the music business. "It's a lot of marketing, having a myth or a story to kind of get people interested. There were obvious contradictions to it--a name like Michelle Shocked, the punk hairdo, all these big-mouth political things. The only thing I ever saw that approached it was when someone asked, 'How can this rootless girl be such a representative of roots music?'"

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