After decades of recording albums as a member of the Staple Singers, and as a solo artist, veteran soul/gospel singer Mavis Staples finally won her very first Grammy Award earlier this year. Hard to believe, but true. But even stranger was the category for which she won: Best Americana Album. Best what?
Indeed, even though the term has been in use for more than a decade in the music industry, 2010 was the first year that the Grammy Awards acknowledged such a category. For most music listeners, however, Americana remains a fuzzily-defined genre. Mavis won for her solo album, You Are Not Alone, which was produced by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, a band definitely more at home in the realm of Americana. While it might be stretching things to define her fine album as Americana, You Are Not Alone was definitely worthy of recognition and acclaim. Her 2007 album, We’ll Never Turn Back, produced by the industrious Ry Cooder, was also a jewel. In between those two memorable studio albums, she released Live: Hope at the Hideout, which, as the title suggests, is a live recording from a club in Chicago. It’s a hot, steaming recording that shows Mavis still has a set of powerful pipes, even as she was closing in on her 70th year on the planet at the time of recording.
As for this thing dubbed “Americana,” here is the definition furnished by the power brokers at Grammy:
Americana music has its roots in the folk-rock and “outlaw country” styles of the 1970s, adding elements or rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B, blues and pop to country music, resulting in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from country and the other genres it may draw upon. While some acoustic instruments are often present, especially acoustic guitar, Americana often uses a full electric band. Americana may retain the twang of country, but with a pronounced edge—often musical or political—that would not be mistaken for today’s commercial country music
I once read a review that called Michelle Shocked a recording artist with integrity, and I thought that was a very apt description. Her songs are honest and heartfelt. But nowadays I think that her music would definitely fit properly into this “Americana” category too. If you want to talk roots music, with both acoustic and electric elements, Michelle Shocked is up there with the best of them.
Michelle Shocked first came to the world’s attention with the quirky album, The Texas Campfire Tapes in 1986. This was not your conventional debut album, but then again it wasn’t supposed to be. The entire album was recorded on a standard over-the-counter Walkman tape recorder at a folk festival in Texas. Not something that most people would think was worthy of worldwide release. But Michelle’s acoustic guitar performances were so riveting, her vocals so engaging, and the songs so good, that a label decided to put it out … although apparently not with Michelle’s endorsement. But Michelle rectified any misgivings about the original release of that album with a similarly titled reissue called The Texas Campire Takes in 2003. This version is a 2-CD set that includes the complete unedited original session, along with previously unreleased songs and between song “narratives.” There is also a 52-page booklet with oodles of photos too. But once again, be prepared for less than optimum sound quality. There’s only so much you can do with the sound from old Walkman tapes even with all the digital editing programs out there nowadays.
Michelle Shocked really took the music world by storm when she scored a huge hit with “Anchorage,” one of the tracks off her excellent 1988 album Short Sharp Shocked, produced by the legendary Pete Anderson. Other songs on the album, such as “When I Grow Up,” “Memories of East Texas,” and “Graffiti Limbo” showcased Michelle’s deft songwriting skills, and the poignant power of her voice. I still love the “bonus” track, a raucous version of “Fogtown” (a song that first appeared as an acoustic version on Texas Campfire Tapes) that closes the album, sung by a member of the punk band MDC, who sounds eerily like David Johansen of the New York Dolls. It definitely doesn’t “fit” with the style of the rest of the songs on the album, but yet it works. I thought it was a great way to end the album, though I’m sure it puzzled many a listener.
My favorite Michelle Shocked album, however, is 1992’s Arkansas Traveler, a “roots” record that was her tribute to string bands and the blackface minstrel era. This was a rambunctious and joyful effort that dabbled in country, bluegrass, folk, soul, and blues. Ain’t that Americana? These were absolutely great songs, bursting with life and passion. And look at the supporting cast of musicians; Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Pops Staples, Taj Mahal, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Albert Lee, Tony Levin, Alison Krauss, Doc Watson, Jerry Douglas, Mark O’Connor, Norman Blake, and Bernie Leadon, along with members of the Red Clay Ramblers, Hothouse Flowers, and Uncle Tupelo. Expectations for such a talented group were high, but they more than delivered the goods. And even with so many musicians on hand, this was still very much a Michelle Shocked album. This album was re-released in 2004 with seven bonus tracks of previously unreleased material, including some live performances. A must have.
Like many talented artists that once had recording contracts with major labels, Michelle Shocked has parted ways with the corporate companies, but she continues to record new albums and play concerts.