The following year Shocked returned to Los Angeles, where she recorded Captain Swing. The neo-1940s big band approach was a major change in direction, yet not as out of right field as it appeared. She was simply staying true to her Texas roots; the time honored spirit of individualism, and, as she defines it, “music as functionality – it’s the background for dancing.” Decades before, Bob Wills & his Texas Playboys had epitomized the concept by incorporating big band, yodeling, fiddle tunes and German waltzes.
The album’s opening track, ‘God Is a Real Estate Developer,’ surmised that when it comes to the existence of a heavenly creator; “it’s all down to speculation.” It wasn’t the first time she had questioned the need for organized religion. ‘Campus Crusade,’ which was included as a bonus track on the reissue of Short Sharp Shocked, expressed contempt for overly aggressive Evangelical Christians.
Nonetheless, near the turn of the decade, she began attending church. It wasn’t due to any conscious spiritual pursuit.
“You know, looking back on it, it was a musicologist’s path; I was so passionately enamored of the breadcrumb trail of American roots music, that I just began following it voraciously, and it led me back to gospel. There was just no avoiding it.”
Among other forms, rock, blues and R & B all have their roots in the church. Shocked decided to investigate, and began attending the West Angeles Church of God in Christ. Predominantly African-American, COGIC is the largest Pentecostal denomination in the U.S.
She was inspired by the choir, but put off by the message, figuring “’this music would be so good if they just got rid of all that Jesus stuff: ‘Jesus this, Jesus that.’ I’m like, ‘come on, let’s just rock out.’”
After attending for six months, she responded to an altar call. She laughs: “I just went one Sunday too often. I went for the singing, but I stayed for the song.”
She took the gospel message at face value. A quote on her website reads “…I was lost but now I’m found,” and she’s described her faith as; “…garden-variety, born-again, Evangelical Christianity.”
The whole concept of the Christian church was and remains anathema to many in the folk world. “I’ve always conceived of it as the one forbidden fruit that an artist may not touch, and so of course I’m going to.” It’s certainly the road less traveled. “Probably the only real template we have for people like myself in terms of their career – getting saved – is the path that Bob Dylan laid out. And if he was Judas for going electric…” Dylan’s audience grew significantly when he challenged the status quo and plugged in. It took a declaration of Christian faith to finally lose his exalted standing. “The same people that embraced him for his creativity and his willingness to evolve [dropped him].”
She was exhilarated. “It was the same thrill that I experienced when I dropped LSD for the first time, or any number of radical things that I had done. It was like; ‘This is going to change my life.’ And frankly, as you get older, they come fewer and farther between. So you’re kind of exhilarated; ‘Wahoo! Another joy ride, let’s go!’” She recognized it was a commitment that would last a lifetime. “I knew it would be. Because that‘s the kind of person that I am; I’m very sincere. I don’t make that kind of commitment unless I really have [thought it through] – I don’t dive in head first; I had been going for six months.”
Sadly, the type of radical transformation she experienced is rarely communicated to the outside world. Too often, the church is guilty of losing touch with it’s roots. “Like the Institutional Revolutionary Party in Mexico; It’s like the revolutionaries take over and then they become an institution.”
She was surprised to learn people had been praying for her long before she even entered the church. That continues to be the case. “I just had a beautiful email from a fan…He’s got a copy of the gospel album, and he says; ‘I just have to tell you, Michelle, I saw you years ago…and you were sharing some really sad stories about your childhood, and I prayed for you. And I thank God – I hope you don’t feel it’s presumptuous – but I feel like he heard my prayers.’ And he was so sensitive about it; he didn’t want to claim the victory, but I wrote him back, and I said ‘Thank God for you! Thank God for your prayers!’”
Instead of disparaging scandal-ridden celebrities, she’d love to see the church intercede on their behalf. She’s thankful for those who already do; “It’s about time we start asking all these public figures and musicians who do get saved; is it just because they’re that phenomenal and unique? Or is it because there is a ministry, an active ministry of believers who love music and listen and hear their stories of pain and heartache, and are praying on their behalf?” Not for the first time, she’s almost overcome with emotion; “And God answers prayers. If that’s going on, it’s all to God’s glory. He’s got the victory on that one.”
Returning with her third studio effort, 1992’s Arkansas Traveler was yet another departure; a sincere exploration of the blackface minstrel tradition, in which performers would paint their faces in a broad caricature of the Negro population. Refusing to bow down to the gods of political correctness, she made the point that blackface was not racist; the practice had existed for over a century, and served to introduce African-American music into the mainstream.
While it’s rarely mentioned today, country music owes a great debt to the custom; Hank Williams, Gene Autry, Bob Wills and Jimmie Rogers all performed in blackface. And it wasn’t just white artists; black performers were known to don makeup as well.
The album featured songs – many with new, original lyrics – that she had grown up singing with her father and brother, both of whom showed up on a few tracks. It was recorded in a variety of exotic locations, including steamboats, an antique store, and a barn, and featured an impressive list of guests, including Doc Watson, Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, Alison Krauss and Taj Mahal.
The album was conceived as the final piece of a trilogy representing her influences. Short, Sharp, Shocked had been inspired by songwriting contemporaries like Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, Captain Swing offered tributes to the swing sounds of Bob Wills and Louis Jordan, and finally, the traditional songs she had learned from her father inspired Arkansas Traveler.
They also confirmed just how far ahead of the curve she was. Captain Swing had predated the swing craze of the late 90s, and Arkansas Traveler foreshadowed the bluegrass roots revival spurred by O Brother, Where Art Thou? a decade later.
Her world view has changed considerably, but she’s never dropped the songs that were critical Christianity. One article claims she no longer sings ‘God is a Real Estate Developer.’ “That’s not a quote from me…somebody distorted that one badly,” she laughs. “I’d sing it, but I haven’t had the band configuration.” Even ‘Campus Crusade’ remains; “I’ve sang that in the last couple of years. I don’t really look at my past work as something that needs to be erased from the history. It does a good job of documenting where I am today.
“I may not be as enthusiastic about singing, for example, ‘33 RMP Soul,’ [from Arkansas Traveler] which on the surface looks like it’s a pre-gospel, prequel to [my] gospel project, because it says; ‘consecrate your soul/or there’s gonna be hell to pay/you got them where they live on the judgment day.’ And recording it with Pop Staples, that’s obviously got some gospel cred to it, as well. But the subtext is that it’s a song about censorship.” Buried within the song are “seven words…that if the FCC knew were in there, couldn’t be played on the radio.” For the most part, listeners don’t pick up on the subtleties; “Mostly just when I point it out; which is fine with me.” Pops wasn’t aware of the hidden message. “Thankfully, no. I just live in terror of Mavis [Staples – Pop’s daughter] confronting me with it someday.” So far, she’s said nothing. Shocked laughs; “She may be too gracious.”
On the opening track from Short Sharp Shocked, she had sung “we’re gonna have a hundred and twenty babies…” By 1993, she was married, and hoping to start a family. The couple knew it would be difficult; the tubal ligation was meant to be permanent. They endured repeated attempts at in vitro fertilization, which – outside of a miscarriage – proved ineffective.
Ultimately, she accepted that she would never have children. “I just think the hand that I was dealt wasn’t necessarily a royal flush, whatever it was. But I’ve played the hand that I was dealt. I look at parenthood as a ministry. And it’s probably a lot of justification, but I look at my current activities and identify them as ministries [too]. So whether I’m ministering through parenthood or ministering through creativity – working out my own salvation – you know, [it’s still ministry].”
She continues to support a woman’s right to choose, but it’s tempered with compassion, and newly found insight. “I would desperately hope that a woman would avoid finding herself in that situation. But if a woman is in that position, I would hope that her own cries to God for an answer would direct her.
“I was an unwanted pregnancy, and there were more times in my life than less that I felt that was very much a curse. The overwhelming influence of that fact was an oppressive negative that I never crawled out from under.
“But in my reconciliation with my mother [the two reconciled a few years ago], I felt more regret for her. The guilt and shame of the unwanted pregnancy inhibited her from seeing and realizing that I was [a] gift. Some women get past that; they get past the guilt and shame. She wasn’t able to do that, and that had a profound influence on my own thoughts about unwanted pregnancies.”
Knowing first hand the damage that shame can inflict, she’s particularly concerned that the church be there for women in crisis. She singles out the African American Church’s handling of the issue. “It’s not quite the same shame as in other organized religions. When you’ve come up under the condemnation of slavery like the black church did – and the reconciliation that it brought about – I just think it’s one of those visceral experiences that you don’t quickly forget.
“I wish that other groups who have experienced oppression and come through it with grace as the redemption would remember those lessons. I have to believe it’s not inherent in the African American dream; I believe that it’s a social conditioning that is fresh enough, that they have been at the bottom, underneath the foot of oppression, and now, through God’s grace coming up out of it, there’s so much grace to offer others. To me, it’s a model for what the true power of God’s grace is; that forgiveness.”
As she prepared to follow-up to Arkansas Traveler, it became clear there were problems with the label. She had suggested two possible ideas for her fifth album, and Mercury balked at yet another change in direction, claiming she was “stylistically inconsistent.”
“The first one – that really outraged them – was called Prayers.” It was about as far as you could get from a chart-friendly release. “Prayers was literally me, in the darkest night of the soul” She explains the concept; “As your thoughts veer wildly from one fear to the next, you’re praying; reaching out to a God that you don’t have a really good relationship with, praying with a desperation that is really intense. But you’re writing it down. And then go into the studio, and hire a piano player to just start kind of playing along.”
In short, an improvised album of desperate prayers. “And of course, they were like; not ‘No,’ but, ‘Hell, no.’
“The second proposal was far more cogitated – there had been a power shift at Polygram, and there were now two guys running Mercury.” When the dust settled, Ed Eckstine was the new President. The change did not bode well for Shocked. “Eckstine had previously run what they euphemistically called the ‘Urban Division.’ His big success was [former Miss America] Vanessa Williams, and I’ll let you draw all the conclusions you want after that.” Eckstine brought a new philosophy to the label, and it didn’t include Shocked. “Well, it was the best thing for Vanessa Williams; it was great.” She laughs. “Just glad you appreciate the irony.”
Her pitch worked both as an artistic statement, and as an attempt to placate Eckstine. “He had signed an act called Tony! Toni! Tone!, who had released an album a year earlier called The Revival. [They] took gospel standards and updated them with their own lyrics. And it struck me that what I had just done on Arkansas Traveler – taking the string band and fiddle tunes that I had grown up with and adapting my own lyrics – [well], you can see the light bulb going off, right? I would do a collaboration with Tony! Toni! Tone! We’re label mates, they’d come straight out of the church, but they’re contemporary urban guys… Let’s do it!”
The project never happened. “That was turned down, too…it’s like they sensed my desperation, and they had me up against the wall.”
When the proposal was rejected, she realized it wasn’t about the music at all. “It’s kind of been presented that it was over stylistic issues…but the writing was already on the wall. It was about money. It was about ownership of masters. It wouldn’t have mattered if the proposal I had was to do an album full of profanities; it didn’t really matter.”
As far as the label was concerned, she had cut too good a deal for herself. They wanted to renegotiate and get the rights to her catalogue. Until then, they were refusing to pay for studio time, in effect, baring her from recording.
She sued to get out of the contract, citing the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery. “Instead of putting my catalogue on ice, they put me on ice. I couldn’t record and I couldn’t leave. They used creative inconsistency as a straw dog; getting me in line was not even an issue. They didn’t even want me – only the masters.”
In defiance of a stipulation preventing her from recording for other labels, she sold a limited-edition, privately-pressed album entitled Kind Hearted Woman at her live shows in 1994. Just her and her electric guitar, the disc was recorded and released in less than a week. The album may not have sold in numbers like her earlier releases, but the fact it existed at all spoke volumes.