(1992 Polygram Records)
Arkansas Traveler, the third and last album Michelle Shocked released for Mercury/Polygram records ‘received little commercial notice’ according to Shocked’s Wikipedia entry. Which shows you exactly how underrated this album is. Not only to ‘the public’ (which proves once again how poor taste it has, generally speaking), but also in the music critics and opinions – at leat that is the impression you get looking for information about the album in places such as her own website, not to mention other places you would expect to find one of the classic and most amazing Roots music records ever. It’s not really mentioned all too often and when it is it’s mostly the album that didn’t do well – a greatly undeserved accolade.
It was, fortunately, however re-released together with her other early work on her own Mighty Sound label, made possible thanks to the fact that she retained the rights to her work when she signed to Mercury (wise move, that). Which means that if you don’t know the album you should still be able to get it should my review entice you to do that. The album I am writing about here however is the original 1992 version.
She is undoubtedly best known and most revered for her 1988 album Shot Sharped Shocked with its iconic cover image – and the standout track Anchorage, her ‘greatest’ (and pretty much only) chart hit. However good that album is (haven’t heard that in ages I have to confess, as I don’t currently own a copy – it’s been on my to-buy list for a very long time). Of course I love Anchorage a lot too (how can you not?), but Arkansas Traveler is most definitely my favorite album of hers by a long shot.
Even just reading a list of the artists involved on here is jaw-dropping, really. And that’s a long list indeed, but I just have to give you that here,although I am not too keen on name-dropping generally: The Band. Don Was/Mitchell Froom/Jerry Scheff/Kenny Aronoff. The Red Clay Ramblers (w/Bernie Leadon). The Hothouse Flowers (Anybody rembering them?). Uncle Tupelo. Taj Mahal. Doc Watson (R.I.P) & Jerry Douglas. Alison Krauss & Union Station.Rising Fawn String Ensemble (feat. Norman and Nancy Blake). (Paul Kelly) & The Messengers. Jimmy Driftwood (R.I.P.) Her father ‘Dollar Bill’ and brother Max Johnston (later of Uncle Tupelo, Wilco and The Gourds).
So far, so good. Just names. But what this list doesn’t tell you is what each and every single artist mentioned here (and the ones not mentioned by name in their respective bands) contributes to making this album, well, one of the best albums of all-time, especially as far as Roots music is concerned. I kid you not. Of course this is an entirely personal and subjective matter. But the sheer quality you get on each track is utterly amazing. I would assume she had the time of her life recording this album – although getting all the artists together must have been a hell of a lot of work. Pleasant in nature of course, but doubtless there must have been a lot of hurdles to get them all to commit to this project. But given they must have all been artists for which the joy of playing comes first it most probably didn’t take them too much convincing to join the fun. In any case all of the tracks on the album are brimful with energy, enthusiasm and the fun I assume was had by all is palpable anywhere, but especially in her vocals.
Irish band The Hothouse Flowers for example. Not the first band you would expect to creep up on here, but they were huge in the late 1980’s, if only for a short time (if I remember correctly). I have got no idea what became of them, but their track on here is brilliant. It’s pretty much a classical upbeat Irish Folk tune, with Tin Whistle, Bodhran and Bouzouki and it sounds exactly as you would expect it to, best part is the high-speed part towards the end – full of joy and as entertaining as the best songs that fall into that category ever sounded.
Album opener 33RPM Soul and Hold Me Back (Frankie And Johnny) are both Soul and Rhythm&Blues influenced guitar pop songs – both influences not among my favorite musical styles, but nevertheless I very much like and enjoy them both considerably. Especially Frankie And Johnny (which pretty much everybody knows in one version or the other) is a lot of fun, being recorded in Memphis’ Sun Studio and with Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown on viola and a couple of brass instruments courtesy of Brown’s band Gate’s Express it’s a classic example of that city’s musical sound. Come A Long Way sounds a bit like Anchorage but to describe it simply as a successor to that song merely written to have a follow-up hit, which sounds quite shady, would be very wrong. It’s great and a lovely, airy semi-acoustic song – it has been always somewhere in my head for the past 22 years, full of ringing acoustic guitars, harmonica and mandolins and a nice, imaginative story about Los Angeles, the city Shocked now calls her home.
Secret To A Long Life has written The Band (although I have to confess to a rather sketchy familiarity of their work) all over it, with Garth Hudson’s unmistakable Accordion the most prominent instrument. Contest Coming, recorded with the until then unbeknownst to me, Red Clay Ramblers (excellent name that btw), is the first track on here steeped ankle-(actually rather knee)-deep in traditional music with entirely acoustic instruments such as Banjo, Accordion, Fiddle and the like – the result ia a good-natured romp through Bluegrass and Hillbilly with a short vocal and a longer up-speed and instrumental Jam-band part.
Shaking Hands (Soldier’s Joy) is one of the tracks I most probably bought this album for, being recorded with what then (and still is nowadays) one of my favorite bands during the early 1990’s Uncle Tupelo. It’s also the only track on the album on which the vocals are mainly handled by somebody other than Michelle Shocked, in this case Uncle Tupelo’s Jay Farrar. If you have been following this blog since the beginning you will know how much I admire their work (and especially Farrar’s, although I have to admit I haven’t celebrated their class on here not nearly enough, but that is still to come). Anyway, Soldier’s Joy, the well-known fiddle tune with its roots in British Folk music is nowadays mainly known for its Civil War area meaning and features lyrics told by soldiers fighting on the Confederate side – absolutely fitting then that this track was chosen for them, hailing from Belleville, IL, just outside of Missouri. Musically it’s very much indicative of how they sounded in this time period, it could’ve been lifted straight from their 1993 album Anodyne. Apparently during the recording they got to know Shocked’s brother Max Johnston who would end up playing on that album as well as later in Wilco. It’s the most rocking track on the album with a driving beat and a field snare drum, although a mandolin provides the most prominent sound flourish for me.
Jump Jim Crow features only Michelle Shocked’s (or as she called herself throughout the album Arkansas Traveller’s) mandolin and voice and Taj Mahal’s guitar – his vocal contributions however are limited to growled/grunted ‘mmmh’s and ‘hhh’s. This sounds a tad stupid written here, but actually it sounds bloody amazing. The music is reduced, primeval acoustic Folk-Blues at its very best.
The following three tracks Strawberry Jam, Prodigal Daughter and Blackberry Blossom root the album even more in traditional Roots music – and up the ante even more in terms of pure loveliness. Shocked’s crystal-clear voice and Doc Watson/Jerry Douglas/Mark O’Connor’s outstanding work on guitar/Dobro and fiddle respectively work wonderfully on the relaxed Strawberry Jam. Prodigal Daughter with Alison Krauss & Union Station starts off utterly gorgeous too with both voices complementing each other very well in the first part of the song and Krauss’ fiddle hovering over the sound to very fine effect. That’s only the first 3 and a half minutes though, the other 3 minutes are given over to a breakneck-speed Bluegrass hoedown. Fantastic stuff.
Blackberry Blossom is probably the loveliest of them all. It features Norman and Nancy Blake doing what they do best, namely playing a flatpick guitar and cello (James Bryant’s fiddle work is not bad either). The result is a slightly melancholic and almost classical chamber music piece of work, with delicate and highly accomplished contributions by everybody involved.
Weaving Way with musical backing by Paul Kelly’s Messengers is a bit more conventional again, not very remarkable stylistically, but a fine guitar-centric Pop song nevertheless. Unfortunately Paul Kelly himself is not present on the finished track – he was another one of my favorite artists back then and in the late 1980’s and big in his native Australia, so I would have loved to hear his voice too.
The last two tracks on the album Arkansas Traveler and Woody Guthrie’s Woody’s Rag finish off the album in style, tucked at the end of the album they are both high points of it in my opinion. Both tracks are pretty much a family affair, with Shocked accompanied by her dad ‘Dollar’ Bill Johnston on Mandolin and her brother Max on guitar, with The Eagles’ Bernie Leadon (who also plays a rather large role throughout the album) the only non-family member (on both tracks he’s playing the Banjo). Arkansas Traveler is a largely instrumental track, only intermitted by a couple of short conversation pieces between an Arkansas farmer and a guy that’s lost and asking him for the way. They are very funny and original indeed: ‘hey farmer you been livin’ here all your life? Not yet.’ or ‘hey farmer, when you gonna fix that leakin’ roof? Aah, stranger, when it rains it’s too wet to fix it, and when it’s dry it’s as good as any man’s house’.
Woody’s Rag is rather short instrumental and sounds exactly as the title implies and is a great way to end this most amazing album indeed. As you will have noticed by now I absolutely adore it and I am slowly running out of superlatives to describe just how much I do.
Listening to the album of course it is not really a surprise that Mercury/Polygram probably didn’t handle that release very well and that for Shocked’s fans it was maybe a step too far into archaic Roots music territory. But I can’t help but wonder if that could be different nowadays as that kind of music is a bit more fashionable thanks to the popularity of films such as the Coen Brother’s O Brother Where Art Tho? and artists such as Old Crow Medicine Show and Gillian Welch (and Dave Rawlings).
However, as I said before, for me it’s one of the very best albums out there and never far from my stereo – although I did neglect it for a few years and probably did not listen to it as often as I should have back then (although I loved it from the beginning). But I was young and foolish then so it wasn’t ‘cool’ then (you know how it is, don’t you? ). Thanks God I’m a bit wiser now.
Sorry if that review turned out a bit long – I was just trying to give the album the justice it deserves, even though I know very few people will get to read it, on my little blog not many people know about.