Michelle Shocked, the East Texas troubadour whose late-'80s music established her as one of the leaders of a wave of independent female artists, probably identifies with the movie "Norma Rae."
When Shocked talks about her career struggle of recent years, she liberally uses terms, including "revolutionary" and "idealist," which were applied to the celebrated Southern woman portrayed by Sally Field in the 1979 film about an employee uprising against a textiles manufacturer.
"I went on strike," Shocked says simply, sitting in a Pasadena coffeehouse, referring to her four-year battle with Mercury Records in a contract dispute over artistic rights.
One big difference, however, is that Shocked's struggle was a solitary one. There was no union backing her up, no other artists or workers striking and no shutdown of the targeted company.
With the dispute now over, the 34-year-old singer-songwriter is a free agent with a new album, "Kind Hearted Woman," due Oct. 15 from Private Music Records, a small label distributed by BMG.
Shocked, scheduled to play Oct. 19 at the El Rey Theatre, also has a new batch of songs ready to record for an album to be released next year, also likely from Private Music. Meanwhile, she has already begun talking to major labels about deals for future projects.
But all this comes only after Shocked, who first attracted attention within folk circles for a collection of "campfire tapes" released without her permission in England in 1986, refused for four years to record an album for Mercury .
"Part of it was so hard," she says now of the lengthy skirmish. "And I could have acquiesced at any time, saved myself the torture."
In a separate interview, her attorney, Peter Paterno, a veteran industry attorney who has represented such major sellers as Guns N' Roses and Metallica, says: "She basically sacrificed her career on the altar of principle. She did not make records for four or five years, which is not really done in our business, where you're only as good as your last hit."
But Shocked, who early on demonstrated her deeply rooted social activism by choosing for the cover of her first Mercury album a news photo of herself in a police chokehold at a mid-'80s squatters' rights demonstration, knew what she was getting into.
"The four-year fallow period is no less part of the big picture of my career and artistic development than when a farmer has a bumper crop and then lets the field rest," she says, using the rural imagery that has fueled much of her music. "And it was just impossible to pass up. They were begging for it."
Before the dispute with Mercury, Shocked (born Karen Michelle Johnson) seemed well on her way to establishing herself as a vital force in contemporary music, bridging the roots of rural folk styles with the forward-looking personal and social concerns that presaged such recent arrivals as Ani DiFranco. Her three Mercury albums--1988's "Short Sharp Shocked," 1990's "Captain Swing" and 1992's "Arkansas Traveler"--formed a trilogy exploring, respectively, singer-songwriter, jump-swing and country blues with personalized lyrical twists, painting a panorama of Southern Americana.
Tying it all together was both an intensity and humor forged from her experiences with a strict Mormon upbringing (her mother had her committed to mental institutions twice after she'd run away) and from spending much of the early '80s homeless and squatting in San Francisco and Amsterdam.
(As part of the settlement with Mercury, the company will be releasing an anthology drawn from those three albums, but with a title, "Mercury Poise," selected by Shocked as a reference to Graham Parker's vituperative song "Mercury Poisoning" about his late-'70s battle with the company.)
In 1993, Shocked was making plans to extend the album series with gospel and funk projects--the latter for which she'd hoped to work with R&B group Tony Toni Tone, which also records for Mercury. But each was rejected by the company as being out of character for the singer.
Mercury wanted her to do something more in line with "Anchorage," the pop-folk epistolary tale of a long-lost friend from "Short Sharp Shocked" that was her biggest hit. The album reached No. 73 and the single No. 66 on the pop charts.
Shocked says relations with the company were strained by a unique provision in her contract that gave her the eventual ownership of all her recordings, putting more pressure on Mercury to get immediate results from any of her albums.
So citing another clause in her contract that gave her complete artistic freedom, she announced that she would never record for Mercury again and was going to shop herself to other companies.