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Songstress Shocked aims to blur distinctions

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Michelle Shocked is defiance personified — in full-throated song and genre-jumping dance. She challenges you to keep up, as she tugs you by the ears through the lands of folk, rock, country, punk, bluegrass and swing. And when she arrives at the Gallivan Center for her concert Thursday, July 19, at 7:30 p.m., Shocked will have skipped into gospel, blues and reggae.

"I regard myself as a true American musician, and I play every style that is my heritage," she is fond of saying. "Folk has been narrowcasted, as I think most music is today." Categorizing music and marketing it as a commodity is "entirely unnecessary. Let's blur all the distinctions if possible. It's more fun that way," Shocked says in a news release.

Born Michelle Johnston 38 years ago in Dallas, Shocked has never been predictable, never been pliable. An ostensible dream-come-true event waylaid her in 1985, when she was "discovered" singing at the Kerrville Folk Festival. The album recorded in a field there turned into "The Texas Campfire Tapes," which sold like wildfire across the Northern Hemisphere.

Next came a contract with the Mercury record label, followed by Shocked's bitter fight to be released from the label three albums later. The record company wanted her to "find a style and stick to it" — which was like putting a deer in a pen. Shocked had already kicked her way out of a couple of psychiatric wards and several cities from San Francisco to Amsterdam, and bowing to authority wasn't in her repertoire. She now has her own recording company to follow her travels across the musical map.

"I've gone through a spiritual journey through all of this. I was lost, and now I'm found," Shocked is quoted as saying.

The artist makes her home in New Orleans — an apt locale, with its simmering blend of Caribbean, Southern and gritty urban flavors. She's mixed those sounds on a new CD, "Deep Natural," to arrive in stores this fall. Shocked is already selling its precursor, "Dub Natural," at her concerts, including Thursday's show at the Gallivan Center.

Her latest effort combines blues, reggae and gospel, all musics about hope.

"No one's ever been able to define blues," Shocked has said. "To me, blues is three chords and something to say. There's a real temptation to think that blues is singing about misery and sorrow. It's singing about your experiences, and what I find in blues is the message of hope and inspiration, because you may be singing about your misery, but the fact that you're singing, that's the real message."

Shocked is a month into her national tour. She's known for springing unexpected sounds on her audiences, and Salt Lake City will likely hear some fresh ones. The artist doesn't subscribe to the reputation Salt Lake City has for being cautious and conventional, according to her agent, Erik Filkhorn. "Michelle's more savvy than that," he said.

E-mail: durbani@desnews.com