The members of her New Orleans church call her "Sister Shocked." She's the Ms. Shocked who sued the Mercury record label under the 13th amendment—that's the anti-slavery amendment—to obtain ownership of her own albums. It's Michelle Shocked, whose past albums—including Short Sharp Shocked, Captain Swing, and Arkansas Traveler—travel the family tree of roots rock. They're like old family letters: "I can't tell you where I'm going," she says, "but I can tell you where I'm from."
Shocked's current release, Deep Natural, and a companion album, Dub Natural, lead listeners on a tour of her Nawlins, Looziana-based journey these days. The first album, which Shocked describes as "Gospel Birdsong," leads listeners down the hidden alleys of the French quarter and to the back row of her church's wooden pews during choir practice. The second album is inspired by a Jamaican dub style, where most lyrics have been stripped from the music, exposing the complexity of Shocked's musical compositions.
Shocked hasn't mellowed since the Short Sharp Shocked days, but even she would acknowledge that her spiritual vision saturates the music and lyrics of her songs.
Evidences of her journey are in songs such as "Why Do I Get the Feeling" and "Forgive to Forget," where Shocked sings, "I lost the will to live/And I found the will to forgive/But the more I forgive/The more I forget/Holding on to the past/ is my only regret."
These songs are the kind of church music many of us long to hear in the sanctuary because of the way they create a sacred space in which to live, reflect, and worship. Songs such as "That's So Amazing," backed up by a couple of gospel singers and a sax, detail the wonder of watching a new moon. The psalm-like "I Know What You Need" is backed up by steel and bass guitars: "Before you were thirsty/I planted a tree beside bitter water and it made it sweet/Before you were hungry/I planted a seed/When you close your eyes/I hope you can see the picture of the life painted/It's a gift from you to me."
Shocked's beliefs are more integrated into Deep Natural than in her previous work. Themes of joy, grace, praise, forgiveness, and remembrance are distilled here. She says of these two albums, "Blues doesn't look backwards as much as dance in the face of the future." Maybe Sister Shocked does know where she's going after all.
Beth Newberry is a roots-rock fanatic and former Sojourners intern living in Washington, D.C.