Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Music: Are you ready for that? Driving your car down a desert highway listening to the seventies and eighties rise like zombies from the rippling sand? I hope so.

Mimsy Review: Arkansas Traveler

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, April 12, 2006

Arkansas Traveler was Michelle Shocked breaking the mold that Mercury Records wanted her in. Hell, it broke the mold that the music industry wanted for music. It’s a fine album.

ArtistMichelle Shocked
Length58 minutes
Album Rating9
1. 33 RPM Soul 4:09
2. Come a Long Way 4:43
3. Secret to a Long Life 3:50
4. Contest Coming (Cripple Creek) 3:35
5. Over the Waterfall 4:39
6. Shaking Hands (Soldier's Joy) 3:25
7. Jump Jim Crow/Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah 3:32
8. Hold Me Back (Frankie & Johnny) 5:09
9. Strawberry Jam 4:33
10. Prodigal Daughter (Cotton Eyed Joe) 6:43
11. Blackberry Blossom 3:31
12. Weaving Way 2:57
13. Arkansas Traveler 4:20
14. Woody's Rag 2:50

One of the quotes on Michelle Shocked’s web pages is “Once you’re categorized, you can be dismissed.” She’s done a good job of avoiding categorization; you can usually find her folk, hillbilly, and blues music in the “Rock and Pop” section of your music store.

Her record company, Mercury, really didn’t know what to do with her. “Authenticity is a real big deal in the music industry. I’ve been packaged in a certain way and while people might not know exactly what I am, they know I’m a darn authentic version of it.” Captain Swing was different than Short Sharp Shocked; Arkansas Traveler was quite different from both of them. From a record label’s standpoint, it was passé. It couldn’t succeed, because it wasn’t what her category allowed. They didn’t want her doing gospel, they wanted her doing acoustic female folk. They wanted a category.

But she wanted to be a musician, not a female musician. “I don’t like the way women in music have been identified as women first and musicians second,” she says.

Her last album for Mercury was a “best of” album named Mercury Poise. I assume she gave it that name, but it may have reflected how they each felt about each other.

She says that “Folk has become narrowcasted as I think most music is today. Let’s blur all the distinctions if possible. It’s more fun that way.” When I hear that, I hear Grant Morrison’s Mr. Nobody saying “Aristotle and Newton made a machine of this whirling wonderful world. Let’s stop all the clocks and kiss the walls goodbye.” Arkansas Traveler does a great job of kissing the walls goodbye. Of course, it also did a great job of alienating her from the entertainment establishment, but it sounds like she doesn’t consider that a bad thing.

The thematic center of this album is “Strawberry Jam”, where she recommends that “if you want the best jam, you got to make your own” and “close down these corporate jam factories”. She would very much like a return to the time when people created their own entertainment.

Despite its old-timey focus, Arkansas Traveler has one song that would fit right in with Short Sharp Shocked or Captain Swing. “Come a Long Way” is, for me, the most emotional song on the album; sharing with “Memories of East Texas” as one of a very few truly affective songs. In it, a person failing in Hollywood steals their motorcycle back from where it had been repossessed, and tries to escape Los Angeles, but the town won’t let go. It’s a modern version of the Eagles’ “Hotel California”.

Like most Michelle Shocked albums, this is one you have to listen to to believe. This was her last album with a major label. It’s amazing it came out at all. Highly recommended.

Arkansas Traveler

Michelle Shocked

Recommendation: Purchase

If you enjoyed Arkansas Traveler…

If you enjoy Michelle Shocked, you might also be interested in Short Sharp Shocked.