Texas Campfire Takes



When Michelle Shocked first heard a recording of herself that had been taped by a campfire at the 1986 Kerrville Folk Festival, she was perplexed. "In September that year a friend came back from Amsterdam with a magazine that had a flexi-disc," says the East Texas-born musician, who was living in Lower Manhattan at the time. "It said it was a song by Michelle Shocked called 'Who Cares?' I knew who Michelle Shocked was, but not a song called 'Who Cares?' "

The mistaken song title (taken from a flippant introduction to the song, actually called "Ghost Town") was just the start. When an album from that fireside session was released by the English producer who had taped it -- without Shocked's knowledge or participation -- it was presented as a field recording of a new talent, discovered by the producer in the manner of the Lomaxes "discovering" folk and blues figures several generations earlier. But the album contained only about half the songs she had sung, presented out of sequence and with most of her introductions and comments removed. If that was not enough, the batteries in the Walkman used to make the recording were running low at the time, so the release was at the wrong speed, making Shocked's voice sound higher than it really was.

No surprise that Shocked, distanced herself from the album, released as "The Texas Campfire Tapes," as she went on to establish a career on her own terms creating a distinctive and ambitious presence in the music world. In fact, she only even listened to it a few times over the years. It may have introduced her talents, but it didn't accurately represent them. But when she listened to the recordings again just last year, she had a completely new perspective. For the first time, she'd been given a copy of the original tape, unedited and in sequence. And it was a vastly different experience.

"I could not stand to listen to it before," she says. "We went to a studio, set the tuner to make it closer to the right speed and the first time they played it for me I went, 'Hey, that's a pretty sharp guitar player! Hey, that atmosphere's great, the crickets chirping.' " That complete version was released for the first time on April 22, 2003, as part of a lavish two-CD package, now called the "Texas Campfire Takes." The gorgeous set, housed in a custom box with a 52-page book of journal notes and archives by Shocked from the early to mid-'80s, is the first release in a series of expanded reissues of Shocked's complete body of work, essential early albums that will come on her own Mighty Sound label. Following will be new releases of her trilogy exploring her musical heritage and influences: the singer-songwriter showcase "Short Sharp Shocked," her masterful exploration of swing and jump blues "Captain Swing" and her barbed rural music survey "Arkansas Traveler." Those three albums established Shocked as an artist of depth, character and imagination, and one with a wide musical embrace that perhaps startled some of her fans, but continues through her current music, including the brilliant 2002 album "Deep Natural."

In fact, with its original integrity restored, the "Campfire" session is a blueprint for what was to come from Shocked. "I was playing a set list of what I was," Shocked says. "A blues-woman, a singer partial to swing, as well as a Texas songwriter. But it was filtered through someone else's perception lens." The first disc of the new package features the album as originally released and reflecting that perspective, though now with the improved sound and clarity of Triple Tone.

The second disc is the restored, revelatory tape with the full 21 songs from around the fire, complete with Shocked's incisive, witty remarks, plus a bonus of material made in performance with other musicians at the festival. Both versions start with the crossroads account of "5AM in Amsterdam", but the second version unfolds a fuller, more coherent artistic vision with the San Francisco observations of "Fogtown", such blues-based material as "Fool for Cocaine", the swing-slanted "My Little Sister" (which would be reprised in a full band setting for 'Captain Swing') and "Secret to a Long Life" and "When I Grow Up" (which would become filled-out highlights of 'Arkansas Traveler' and 'Short Sharp Shocked,’ respectively). Though not given access to the actual original tape, audio producer Cheryl Pawelski brought the recording as close to correct speed as possible, while making the sound remarkably clearer. Art director David Willardson worked with Shocked to create the stunning package and book.

"Texas Campfire Takes" is available here.