Raised on bluegrass and rooted in folk and gospel, she defies traditional descriptions.
“I am like a one-woman iPod shuffle. My style is all over the map,” the singer/songwriter says by phone from her home in Los Angeles.
The east Texas native, now 50, has spent her whole life all over the map, first through her stepfather’s military career, then through her own vagabond music career, stretching from “The Texas Campfire Tapes” in 1986 through her critically acclaimed 13th album, “Soul of My Soul,” in 2009.
Last week, she was thankful to be sleeping in her own bed during a short layover from her latest project, “Roadworks.” It’s a five-year tour that started in 2010, designed for six months on the road and six months at home.
The “Roadworks 2012: Roccupy” leg is swinging from Wyoming through the Midwest in May, mixing fan favorites with new music from the “Indelible Women” endeavor.
“It’s an as-yet unrecorded project that ‘Roadworks’ ends up being a very elaborate teaser campaign for,” she says. “It’s a collaboration with my sweetheart of 10 years, David Willardson, a fine-art painter.”
He’s creating 11 portraits of women “who are so iconic that you say their first name and you know immediately who you’re referring to — Audrey, Amelia,” Shocked says.
She’s writing music to accompany the paintings, rolling out the songs a few at a time on tour.
But that’s just part of her concert. She wants her Cedar Rapids audience to be forewarned: She begins with “folkaoke” — a singalong of familiar tunes — then moves on to her original music. After a break, she ends with a discussion on housing foreclosures, stemming from her support of the Occupy Wall Street principles.
Growing up in the ’70s, she really didn’t have any “causes” to champion. That’s changed in the past year.
“I’ve been politically conscious and active for over 25 years, but I’ve yet to belong to a movement,” she says. “When you think about the anti-war movement, it had its peak at the height of the Vietnam War, but I was too young, and every other movement that’s come along since then has felt to me like a single-issue movement.
“The Occupy movement, by addressing inequality in the system that we live in, feels much more comprehensive … ” she says. “Something in me just likes the ad hoc, spontaneous empowerment of a movement over the more stable processes by which we sometimes make progress. I like the messiness of it.”
She’s been arrested twice over her convictions, first in 1984, during the Democratic Convention in San Francisco, when she vocally protested corporations contributing funds to both parties, and most recently on Nov. 29, 2011, during the eviction of the Occupy Los Angeles encampment.
She says she sustained permanent damage to her left hip and vertebra in her neck when police put her in a choke hold and torqued her leg back in 1984, captured in the cover photo on her popular 1988 album, “Short Sharp Shocked.” Born Michelle Johnston, she gave arresting officers the name “Michelle Shocked” that night.
“That’s the first time I used that legally,” she says. “I had used it as my underground name, but after that, I adopted it as my (artist) name.”
During her November arrest, she gave her name as “Michelle 99,” after the “99 percent” Occupy rallying cry, but the cops had found her ID, so that name didn’t stick. The experience did give rise to her new foreclosure focus, which she admits is dicey to discuss in a concert setting.
“It’s my job” to take that chance with audiences, she says. “If I don’t, if I play it safe, if I pander or if I become predictable, there’s no art to it, I’m just punching the clock.”
Courage and action go hand-in-hand with her strong religious faith.
Raised “a fundamentalist Mormon,” she “ran in the opposite direction” in her teens and 20s, until her 30s, when she found solace in God and a gospel choir during a tumultuous 13-year marriage to an alcoholic.
She reads Scriptures and prays every day. It’s a faith that feeds her soul, even when her music can’t.
“When I’m facing burnout, I have to stand on my faith. I never lost my joy, I never lost my hope, I never lost my faith. Most of all, I never lost my praise. It’s true — it’s really true. I don’t feel the flames of the fire when I go through it anymore.”
— Diana Nollen