One may feel a certain pity for Mercury Records when it took delivery of Michelle Shocked's third album for the label, Arkansas Traveler. Mercury had signed the feisty country-folk singer/songwriter in the wake of the hoopla surrounding her first album, The Texas Campfire Tapes, an impromptu collection recorded on a cassette player at the 1986 Kerrville Folk Festival. Shocked eschewed a hefty advance in favor of greater artistic control and then delivered the well-received Short Sharp Shocked (1988), followed by Captain Swing (1989), something of a swing-band genre exercise. Both albums reached the Top 100 in Billboard and spent six-plus months in the charts. At first, Arkansas Traveler must have sounded like a breakthrough effort; it was certainly ambitious. Shocked was adapting old folk and country material such as "Soldier's Joy," "Frankie & Johnny," and "Cotton Eyed Joe" with new arrangements and lyrics, and she was conducting sessions around the world with a host of impressive partners. In Australia, she collaborated with Paul Kelly's backup band, the Messengers, on "Weaving Way," and she went to Ireland to record "Over the Waterfall" with the Hothouse Flowers. In the U.S., there were sessions in Chicago, IL, with Pops Staples of the Staple Singers ("33 RPM Soul"); Woodstock, NY, with Levon Helm and Garth Hudson of the Band ("Secret to a Long Life"); Chapel Hill, NC, with the Red Clay Ramblers ("Contest Coming [Cripple Creek]"); St. Charles, MO, with Uncle Tupelo ("Shaking Hands [Soldier's Joy]"); Los Angeles with Taj Mahal ("Jump Jim Crow/Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah"); Memphis, TN, with Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown ("Hold Me Back [Frankie & Johnny]"); Wilkesboro, NC, with Doc Watson ("Strawberry Jam"); Franklin, TN, with Alison Krauss & Union Station ("Prodigal Daughter [Cotton Eyed Joe]"); Rising Fawn, GA, with Rising Fawn String Ensemble ("Blackberry Bottom"); Mountain View, AR, with Jimmy Driftwood ("Arkansas Traveler"); and Mineola, TX, with Dollars, Taxes, featuring her father, "Dollar Bill" Johnston, on mandolin (Woody Guthrie's "Woody's Rag").
The music ranged from folk-rock to old-timey country, and Shocked interacted well with her many guests, reinvigorating the traditional tunes and remaking them in her own exuberant style. If they had a chance to think about it, the executives at Mercury might have dreamed of a PBS special featuring all the musicians and a home video to further expose and promote a release that might have seemed like a potential cross-genre smash. Then would have come the bombshell. Shocked, it seemed, had been inspired in her conception of the album by an interest in the history of blackface minstrelsy, which provided the source of such songs as "Jump Jim Crow," and she wanted to appear in blackface on the cover of the album. Despite her contracted artistic control, Mercury rejected this desire, which of course would have constituted commercial (and perhaps career) suicide, but the label did allow her to write a sleeve note about her intentions and then felt required to add a disclaimer to the effect that her views "do not necessarily represent those of the musicians who have generously contributed their time and talent to this project." One could certainly listen to and enjoy Arkansas Traveler while ignoring all this small-print, handwritten commentary in the album's booklet, but of course critics couldn't be expected to do that, and while praising the music, they also commented on the artist's no doubt well-intentioned, but seemingly confused -- or at least confusing -- concept. As a result, Arkansas Traveler failed to sell and became Shocked's last major-label effort.