The Strange Journey of Michelle Shocked
Michelle Shocked is the only child of a couple who met at the Texas State Fair in Dallas in 1961. Her real father was a musician and carpenter named "Dollar" Bill Johnson. He was working the Tilt-a-whirl ride when he met Michelle's mother. A quick romance ensued, and by the time Michelle was born in 1962, the couple was already divorcing. Her mother converted to the Mormon Church and remarried an Army man, and she spent her early years living as an Army brat in the US and West Germany.
By the time Michelle was 14, her stepfather was out of the Army, and the family was living in Gilmer, Texas. Michelle graduated from Gilmer High School in 1979, then promptly ran away from home to find her "real" dad, "Dollar" Bill. She caught up with him in Dallas.
Michelle says, "My dad was one of those hippie cats that was pretty progressive. He was like the first white English teacher at a all-black school durin' the sixties, you know, when there was all the upheaval. He considered himself something of a cat and he had a collection of both Texas singer-songwriters like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark and Jerry Jeff Walker and he also had a reasonably modest blues collection. And he gave up teaching school to go into the business of buying old houses and living in 'em and fixing 'em up and selling 'em. So I was helping him during the summers and he had a record player, you know, the old kind where you leave the arm up and so all day long I would listen. Leadbelly and Lightnin' Hopkins were my two favourites. Big Bill Broonzy was another one. For eight, ten hours a day I would listen to one side or another of these albums and I didn't realize at the time I was getting, not a broad sense of the blues but a pretty deep one." Her father encouraged her to learn to play a six string Sears Silvertone acoustic.
In the early 80's, Michelle went to Austin, where she played solo gigs in little beer joints and managed to obtain her Bachelors Degree from UT.
In 1983, Michelle left Texas and traveled to New York and San Francisco, where she was practically homeless, squatting in vacant apartments and again playing small gigs for low pay.
While in San Francisco, Michelle was picked up by the police at a protest supporting homeless people and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. After about three days of treatment she telephoned her father, who brought her back to Dallas.
About three months later, after she had returned to her homeless lifestyle, her friends in Austin called her mother, who, alarmed over Michelle's wild lifestyle, had her admitted to the psychiatric ward at Dallas' Baylor Hospital where she was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. She was released when her mother's insurance coverage ran out after a month. During this time, legend has it she was given electric shock therapy, which is the reason she later began to call herself Michelle Shocked.
In May of 1986, shortly after her return to Texas and, while volunteering at the Kerrville Folk Festival, producer Pete Lawrence of the UK indie label Cooking Vinyl, was impressed by her performance and recorded her on a Sony Walkman. The recordings were released as The Texas Campfire Tapes on Cooking Vinyl Records and become a surprise hit in England. By January of 1987, it was number one on the British independent charts. Within a few months, Michelle had moved to London, where she lived in a houseboat on the Thames River. The indie success brought Mercury/Polygram executives calling, and she was signed to a major label deal in November of 87. By 1988 her first major release, "Sharp Short Shocked" finished second in the Grammy Awards to Tracy Chapman's debut album. In the Best Contemporary Folk category.
Four albums and four years later, Michelle found faith in God while researching African-American gospel music. She proposed a gospel album to Mercury, but they hated the idea. She ended up spending 4 years in court suing Mercury until they released her.
That's why you won't find any of Shocked's CDs in record stores today. Her next three albums, Kind Hearted Woman, Artists Make Lousy Slaves and Good News, were released as limited issues and sold only at gigs. All of her albums since 1993 are rare, and highly prized by her fans.
In 2002, she formed her own independent label, Mighty Sound. These days Michelle Shocked continues to write and release songs with deep gospel, jazz, and creole blues roots. No longer a "big star", her fans believe each release is better than the last.
(J. A. Miller)