Picks and Pans Review: Arkansas Traveler
Most people like to keep a diary of some sort when they travel. Shocked decided to make an entire album about her wanderings. She recorded everywhere from the legendary Sun Studios in Memphis to Trafalgar Studios in Sydney, from a riverboat in Missouri to an antique store in Georgia.
Likewise, the musicians vary from Hothouse Flowers to the Messengers (minus Paul Kelly) to Michelle’s dad, affectionately known as “Dollar” Bill Johnston. For an album recorded in such disparate locations with a wildly varying gaggle of musicians, Arkansas Traveler is a surprisingly coherent collection of songs. It neatly bridges the gap between the rough-hewn spontaneity of The Texas Campfire Tapes (1986) and the more studied slickness of 1989’s Captain Swing.
Shocked has said that her reference points for this album were her fascination with the tradition of fiddle tunes, the roots of blackface minstrel music and her love of “sitting around with a bunch of musicians and jamming the night away.” And this is her most satisfying offering since her 1986 debut. Both Short Sharp Shocked (1988) and Captain Swing tended to gloss up and dilute the pure exuberance of a Michelle Shocked live performance. This record capitalizes on it.
From the Celtic strum of “Over the Waterfall” to the driving “Shaking Hands (Soldier’s Joy)” and the sparse duet with Taj Mahal on “Jump Jim Crow,” the album’s strength is its diversity. The singer presents Arkansas Traveler as the closing chapter in a trilogy. The next LP will show us if Michelle can still shock. (Mercury)