Essential Album: Arkansas Traveler by Michelle Shocked

Been on a bit of a Michelle Shocked kick lately, and I thought I’d share this often overlooked gem with you.

Arkansas Traveler was released in 1991 by Mercury Records and was quite an ambitious and far reaching effort for the folkie Shocked. The album reads as a survey of several forms of American music that have been adapted and updated by an amazing roster of guests. In fact, Shocked traveled around the country and the world to record with many different artists and lend a strong sense of authenticity to each track.
For the opening track, Michelle went Chicago to have Pops Staples lay down some of his signature guitar licks on the soulful “33 RPM Soul.” Next, it was off to L.A. to record with an all-star group of session players including Mickey Rafael, Brian Berline, and Mark Goldenberg for the driving folk-rocker “Come a Long Way.” Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, and Albert Lee brought Shocked to Woodstock, NY for the accordion and keyboard (both by Hudson) driven “Secret to a Long Life.”
More traditional fare is explored on the nest stretch of songs as Shocked recorded with the Red Clay Ramblers in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (“Contest Coming”), Irish folk/rockers The Hothouse Flowers in Dublin, Ireland (“Over the Waterfall”) and Alt-Country royalty Uncle Tupelo on a riverboat in St. Charles, Missouri. On the latter song, “Shaking Hands (Soldier’s Joy),” Shocked, Jay Farrar, Jeff Tweedy, and Mike Heidorn bring a great deal of fire and grit to this reworked tale of a Civil War soldier’s battle with a bullet and his own conscience.
Blues legends dot the next few tracks as Shocked is joined by Taj Mahal in L.A. for the minstrel number “Jump Jim Crow/Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.” Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and Bernie Leadon signed on in Memphis for a rambling retelling of the traditional song “Frankie and Johnny.” Shocked’s version, “Hold Me Back (Frankie & Johnny),” is told from Frankie’s point of view as she begs for someone to stop her from doing what she feels must be done to the two-timing Johnny.
Folk and bluegrass roots are explored once again as Shocked takes the stage with Doc Watson, Jerry Douglas, and Mark O’Conner at Merlefest in Wilkesboro, North Carolina for the live track, “Strawberry Jam.” Alison Krauss and the original Union Station line up join in for the bluegrass romp “Prodigal Daughter (Cotton Eyed Joe)” while Norman and Nancy Blake pick a bit in Georgia on “Blackberry Blossom.”
For the last few tracks, Shocked traveled to Australia to record with Paul Kelly’s backing band, The Messengers (“Weaving Way”), Arkansas for some Hee Haw style pickin’ and jokin’ with Jimmy Driftwood (“Arkansas Traveler”), and finally Texas with Leadon once again for the album closing “Woody’s Rag.”
At the time of its release, the album was not received as well as Shocked’s previous efforts. This was due in large part to her admission that a large portion of the album was inspired by an interest in the music of minstrel shows… a form of entertainment that was popular in the 1800’s and featured white entertainers dressed in black face make up. Today, the shows are widely considered as having contributed to many negative stereotypes of black cultre, and the mention of minstrel shows still carries strong racist connotations.
Shocked, of course, was inspired by the music of the era… not the racial overtones some of the songs represent. However, the presence of prominent black artists such as Pops Staples, “Gatemouth” Brown, and Taj Mahal as part of the project was not enough to silence some of Shocked’s stronger critics, and the album was a commercial failure.
I was unaware of this aspect of the recording when I started listening to this album a few years back. All I heard was the music… and that’s all I hear today. It still sounds good to my ears as a fine collection of traditional tunes updated to suit a modern (in 1991) audience with many strong originals from Michelle Shocked mixed in for good measure. Check it out if you get the chance.
Michelle Shocked w/Uncle Tupelo: Shaking Hands (Buy Album)
Michelle Shocked w/Alison Krauss & Union Station: Prodigal Daughter (Cotton Eyed Joe) (Buy Album)
Bonus: Here is the video for “Come a Long Way” from Arkansas Traveler.

Second bonus: A quick story about how Michelle was involved in one of my favorite concert moments… even though I’ve never seen her perform.
The first time I ever saw the Avett Brothers was during the 2004 Americana Music Conference in Nashville. There were tons of artists in town, and it seemed as though there were always a few musicians in every crowd at every showcase that weekend. The Avetts were on stage at the Station Inn, a bluegrass landmark that was hosting several showcases during the conference. About halfway through their set, I noticed two women had jumped out of their seats in the front row and started dancing together right in front of the stage.
Those two women? Adrienne Young and Michelle Shocked. It was the kind of thing that could only happen in Nashville at the Americana Music Conference.

4 Responses to “Essential Album: Arkansas Traveler by Michelle Shocked”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    I was at that Avett Bros. show too. What a fun night. The Avett's agency used it as an opportunity to turn their talent buyer friends onto the band (who were just a regional sensation at the time). It worked.

    As for Shocked, I think she is an amazing live act and she's made some great records- but i'm done supporting her. I won't buy her music anymore, I won't promote her shows. She's burned me and too many people I know. Her personal actions don't seem to match her rhetoric. She makes choices to use and hurt people as suits her whims- so I make a choice not to support her or people like her. Life is too short.

    I'll be at the Americana conference again this year. It's a great hang and I get to see and meet people who dig the same kinda music I do. Maybe there will be another great moment like the one we both witnessed back in 2004? Maybe not. But I'm sure it'll be time & money well spent.

  2. Thanks for the comment.

    I'm not sure what you're referring to exactly about Michelle… but you have my attention.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Yes–further information, please!

    I really like Shocked, especially this unacknowledged foundational work of Americana, but I'll drop her fast if she has, for instance, been doing propoganda broadcasts for Mussolini.

  4. Jim from SE KY Says:

    Now I will assume that Anonymous 1 is a random nutjob and will therefore start enjoying Michelle Shocked without reservation once more.

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