My assignment: Michelle Shocked’s ‘Texas Campfire Tapes’
A week or two ago, when I was getting ready for a long flight, I asked my Twitter and Facebook followers to assign me an album to listen to on the plane. I promised to pick one at random and listen on repeat, then blog about it here. I made a list of all the suggestions, closed my eyes, and pointed. My finger landed on Michelle Shocked’s Texas Campfire Tapes, a suggestion from a friend of mine who has suggested this album to me a number of times before, in real life. I took the hint and downloaded it from iTunes.
To offer some context, Texas Campfire Tapes was recorded on a Sony Walkman in 1986. Some popular songs from 1986: Miami Sound Machine’s “Conga,” the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian.” Compared to the popular music of the time, Texas Campfire Tapes is imaginative, honest, raw, and remarkable. It was Shocked’s first full-length album. Then again, Greg Brown released Songs of Innocence and of Experience that same year. Utah Phillips’ collection from the Wobbly songbook, We Have Fed You All a Thousand Years, dropped two years prior and Townes Van Zandt released Live and Obscure in ’87. It’s not like there were no other folksingers around, no lofi recordings, nor thought-provoking songwriting to stir people from its sheer simplicity. That this of all records managed to cut through whatever fog existed at the time is certainly notable.
But, I’ve listened to it a number of times now and still can’t connect with it. It’s the kind of record that’s disappointing mainly because I know there have been songs and albums from Shocked with which I’ve connected deeply. Its follow-up, Short, Sharp, Shocked, for example, was a great record which received copious airtime on my speakers when I was just starting to think about songwriting. I liked Arkansas Traveler quite a bit. There have been songs that have moved me, others which have simply stuck in my head.
Had I happened upon this album in 1986, I may have fallen for it. It may have inspired me to follow Shocked’s career and delve deeply into each of her subsequent recordings. It’s hard to say. You can’t erase everything you know, however, and I came to this album a bit too posthumously to truly appreciate it. I have no nostalgic tie to it. To my ear now, knowing the breadth of her stylistic and melodic capability, this recording simply makes me want to hear the other albums, the ones I already have and know and love.
I can admit there is certainly some academic benefit to going back and studying an album like this, considering what one now knows about the artist, what one knows of the culture of mainstream influence during that particular time in history. In terms of casual listening, however, it just didn’t connect.
Don’t get me wrong. There are reasons to appreciate this album. I’m sure there’s a statistic about this somewhere, and I’m sure the gulf between the number of recordings made versus those which a majority of people ever actually hear is much larger now than it was in 1986 when record labels did their filtering thing more universally and effectively. However, that this little rinkydink record made on a tape recorder is still around for people like me to pick apart is worth some considerable applause. Shocked is a fairly terrific guitar player and her vocals and guitar work share the same nuances at the same times. Which is to say she’s got a good command of dynamics, and she uses these to accentuate her vocals – something which, on its own, is not as strong as that of artists one might seriously refer to as “singers.”
There are a couple of vaguely catchy moments. “The Secret to a Long Life (Is Knowing When It’s Time to Go)” is not only good advice, but also the closest thing to a memorable hook on the whole disc. “The Hep Cat” is nonsensical enough that the lyrics stop mattering and come across more as a separate instrument altogether – a utility many more self-conscious songwriters might shy from in a quest to be taken seriously as poetic lyricists. They’re there more for rhythm and accessory than anything, in other words. As a writer, I appreciate when people throw definitions out the window in favor of rhythm and the sheer aesthetic value of words. It challenges the listener, dares you to see words as more than vehicles for ideas, but as their own musical assertions in and of themselves. Whether that’s what she meant to do or not is impossible to prove, but that’s what I take from “Hep Cat.”
But that’s it. That’s all I’ve been able to pull from this record after that many listens. I wish there was more to say, but alas.
I’ll be taking another long plane ride in a couple of weeks. Let’s try this again. I’ll take your suggestions for my next assignment in the comments here. What record do you think I absolutely need to hear?