Recorded live at a folk festival on a portable tape machine, The Texas Campfire Tapes — complete with the atmospheric (if not necessarily natural) sound of chirping crickets — made Dallas-born Michelle Shocked (Johnston) the darling of the British folk scene. An uncertain but ambitious singer whose early style was a weave of jazz, blues and rock’n’roll as much as folk, she comes off as a talented amateur with modestly appealing songs and the hint of substantial potential. Although Shocked’s disingenuous pretensions conflict with the emotional candor of her music — her chosen idioms are no place for phonies — she is a gifted character who doesn’t let down her guard, even when she’s letting down her guard.
Parlaying UK success into an American record deal (which led to Campfire Tapes‘ domestic issue), Shocked made Short Sharped Shocked, her first studio album, with guitarist Pete Anderson (Dwight Yoakam’s producer). Using a bunch of session players, he provided a crisp, tasteful Nashville country bed for some of her songs. While maintaining a tenuous connection to acoustic folk with the winsome “Memories of East Texas” and Jean Ritchie’s “The L+N Don’t Stop Here Anymore,” Shocked otherwise favors full-bodied arrangements: hence the uptight R&B sound of “If Love Was a Train” and the glib singer/songwriter pop treatment of “Anchorage,” a wonderfully affecting correspondence between old friends. Shocked even rocks out punkwise, joining ex-Texas politicos MDC for an unlisted hard-rocking rendition of her first album’s “Fogtown.” (Could that be the first secret CD bonus track?)
As surprising a contrast Short Sharp Shocked as was to The Texas Campfire Tapes, the slick Captain Swing is a real shocker. Anderson leads a band with horns, piano and strings in a modern evocation of ’40s jazz. As a songwriter, Shocked isn’t yet equipped to pull off an entire album in this style (indeed, she has to recycle one first-album tune to make ten tracks, most of which are insubstantial love songs), and her voice isn’t quite up to the challenge, either. Still, such fearless ambition is to be admired, and the album serves notice that Shocked isn’t sitting still for anybody’s expectations of her.
Indeed. “My early intention was to present this record with a cover photo of myself wearing blackface…my sincere intention was that it would provide a genuine focus on the real ‘roots’ of many of the tunes included; blackface minstrelsy.” Without getting into Shocked’s dubious musicology (or the advisability of a white woman reviving such charming American cultural memories as “Jump Jim Crow”), it’s just as well for all concerned that the cover of Arkansas Traveler is ungarnished by paint beyond the shack’n’outhouse backdrop. The peripatetic collection was recorded in a dozen locales — including LA, Memphis, Dublin, Woodstock and Australia — with as many casts of collaborators. (Pops Staples, Hothouse Flowers, Bernie Leadon, Uncle Tupelo, Taj Mahal, the Band, Doc Watson, Alison Krauss and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown are only some of the names here.) Musically, Shocked is in an old-timey mood; if there’s swinging or rocking to be done here, it’s with a full-on country accent. Obnoxious if you think too hard about the project but almost unfailingly fine if you lie back and enjoy the surprisingly cohesive sounds, Arkansas Traveler draws too much attention to itself for such modest music, but that doesn’t make the songs — a hodgepodge of unmarked traditionals (among them “Cotton Eyed Joe,” “Frankie and Johnny” and “Cripple Creek”) and derivative originals — any less appealing.
Shocked subsequently parted ways with her label and released the rejected Kind Hearted Woman on her own, initially selling it at shows.