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  • Rich Kassirer

Shock and Ugh: The rise and fall of Michelle Shocked

Michelle Shocked at Club Passim in 2008.
Michelle Shocked at Club Passim in 2008.

Michelle Shocked changed my musical life forever – and for that I’ll be forever grateful. But I believe that the joy she gave me will also never return.

When I first heard her album “Short Sharp Shocked” in 1988, I was listening to almost exclusively classic rock. Yes, the Allman Brothers, Pink Floyd. I had pretty decent jazz, blues and reggae collections and hundreds of Grateful Dead bootleg tapes. But I wasn’t listening to anything modern, new, different.

And then I heard that album of folk and country tunes sung by woman with a Texas drawl and – I don’t know – something just clicked with me. “Hello Hopeville,” “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore,” “Grafitti Limbo,” these story songs seemed like they came from a whole different era.

I was literally Shocked out of my old listening habits. It opened me up to a whole new world of folk music – Dar Williams, Ani DiFranco, and Gillian Welch. From there, all varieties of music became more accessible. Dolly Parton’s country? Sure. Crooked Still’s newgrass?


And it was all made possible because of that Michelle Shocked album.

Though many were less excited about her second album, “Captain Swing,” I loved it. The Western Swing and big-band sound of “Must Be Luff” and “Little Too Late” floored me. I loved how the song “Looks Like Mona Lisa” brought the woman in the painting to life. And “Don’t Mess Around With My Little Sister” flat-out rocked.

I was hooked. Sue and I traveled to Northampton in 1990 to see her for the first time. Yes, we noticed the overwhelmingly lesbian audience, but that didn’t matter to me. I never felt like I shouldn’t be there.

“Arkansas Traveler,” her third and probably best-received album, was a surefire winner. Guest artists from Alison Krauss to Taj Mahal to The Band joined her on the album of country, folk and old-timey tunes.

To me, every album she put out, was better than the last. I became a member of her fan club and checked the tour dates constantly to find out when she would be coming around again.

Everything seemed to be going great for her up until this point. But the first cracks came during the album’s tour when she got into a disagreement with members of the Band, who ended up backing out.

It was quickly followed by a squabble with her label, Mercury, about artistic control, and soon after, Michelle stopped recording commercially all together.

Sue and I saw her two more times, at the House of Blues (when it was in Cambridge) in 2000 and 2001, and she was stellar. One of the performances was particularly memorable as she stood on one foot and spun herself around slowly to one of the songs. She was a captivating live performer, telling stories, talking with the audience and seemingly enjoying herself.

To me, her best album was one that was never even released commercially. Called “Kind-Hearted Woman,” it was filled with some of the most depressing, sad story songs of Depression-era hard times. It’s an amazing album that rivals Springsteen’s “Nebraska” in its stunning desperation. I loved it and wanted to hear more.

But the fallout with her label was taking its toll on her career. She dropped out of sight commercially.

She no longer seemed to be able to fill big venues, and her choices on future albums (Disney songs?) fell on deaf ears – even mine.

It became tough to still be a fan.

Yet, in 2003, Sue and I made a trip to Lowell to see her play at a restaurant/nightclub called Capo’s. Shortly after the start of the show, she stopped mid-song because someone’s food smelled bad to her. She then proceeded to get in a tiff with a drunk fan who told her to start playing again. The venue’s owner tried to throw the drunk fan out, but Michelle asked that the fan be allowed to speak his mind because one time, she was told to get off a plane after causing a problem and she was never allowed to tell her side of the story. It delayed the show about a half hour, but somehow she finished her set. The audience sat on pins and needles for the rest of night worrying she was going to blow a gasket again.

After that night I vowed it would be the last.

But it wasn’t.

In 2008, she played Club Passim in Cambridge and brought along singer, songwriter and guitarist Erin McKeown. I’m a big fan of Erin’s as well and figured it would be really cool to see them play together. But the pair never seemed to gel. Michelle would go on short religious rants, ask the audience to sing along, and Erin never seemed to get into the flow. After the show, the first what was supposed to be a short tour for the pair, Erin dropped out.

I had posted a short video clip from the show on YouTube, as I had done for many of the shows that I went to over the course of the past six or seven years for my blog/magazine Modern Acoustic.

Not one of the other nearly 100 musicians I photographed or videoed ever got in touch with me about my posting – except Michelle.

Here is what she wrote: “Hey! Bootlegger! How on earth do you justify bootlegging my performance and then posting it all over the internet? Are you thinking that this is a compliment to me? What ever happened to asking permission…to record in the first place!! You bought a ticket to a show. That was as far as your rights go! Unbelievable!”

I immediately took the video down and had a decent email conversation with her explaining how I felt I was helping promote her music and not using it commercially for my own gain. But she didn’t’ see it that way – she had been bootlegged before – and it wasn’t worth the fight to me. But her final note is the kicker as she thanks me and asks for a copy of my video: “Thank you for your (eventual) consideration of my rights and concerns, Rich … I would have preferred that my request to not record the performance was honored, but since it was not, I would be even more appreciative if you were to provide me a copy for my own archives.”

In the end, I was spent. I could no longer offer my support of her music. She had increasingly added religious content into her shows as well as some radical behavior. I was worn down and the music was no longer worth it.

I wasn’t surprised when I heard of her latest incident in San Francisco, just sad. She has been a very important artist in my life and for that I will always be thankful. I do believe she was misunderstood at Yoshi’s, but she never tried to straighten it out during the show or in subsequent interviews afterward. Is it mental illness or stubbornness? I don’t know.

I will just say that I will miss the Michelle Shocked that gave me such joy, and I am sorry it ended this way.

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