FORGET THE SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE: Singer-songwriter Michelle Shocked couldn’t make Kind Hearted Woman (Private Music), her first album in four years, until she turned to both God and the U.S. Constitution.

Starting in 1992, the Dallas native’s longtime label, Mercury Records, refused to release any of her new material. The chief explanation for this was what the label called “stylistic inconsistency.” Shocked thinks it means Mercury was uncomfortable with her religious conversion that year at West Angeles Church of God and Christ in Los Angeles and her plans to incorporate her spirituality into her work; yet the phrase is also fuzzy record-company speak for “Why can’t you just crawl back into a nice, marketable girl-folkie niche?” Matters were made worse by Mercury’s unwillingness to let Shocked out of her contract: Only last January, after several years of threatened lawsuits and her charge that the label was violating the Thirteenth Amendment—the one outlawing involuntary servitude—did the parties reach a settlement.

Mercury shouldn’t have been surprised by 34-year-old Shocked’s ever-changing ways, having released her big-bandish Captain Swing (1989) and her wildly eclectic, rootsy Arkansas Traveler (1992). Indeed, in life as well as music, Shocked has always wandered. Currently a resident of New Orleans, she was raised all over the world before attending high school in the East Texas town of Gilmer. After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in 1983, she ran with gypsies and radicals and joined the flag-burning crowd at the 1984 Republican convention in Dallas, leading her Mormon mother to have her temporarily institutionalized. In 1986 she played a now-famous set amid the informal hootenannies of the Kerrville Folk Festival; it was recorded on a Sony Walkman and released as The Texas Campfire Tapes (Cooking Vinyl). Mercury signed Shocked the next year; her time with the label is represented by a new greatest hits CD, Mercury Poise, whose release was part of the settlement.

During her years in limbo, Shocked has continued to write, record, and perform. Before she cut a nonexclusive, short-term deal with the L.A.-based indie label Private Music this summer, she sold an early version of Kind Hearted Woman directly to fans at shows. “I was able to prove that the real power lies between an artist and an audience,” Shocked says. The record was inspired, in a way that is both mournful and celebratory, by her grandmother’s death in 1994. She sums up the song cycle as “a process of traveling from despair to redemption.”

And what about that redemption? Unhinged gospel is what drew Shocked to her faith—it struck her as the root of everything from blues to Texas swing. “I just kept going back to church to check out the music,” she says. “I guess I went one day too often. The next thing I know, the preacher’s making the altar call, and I’m standing up there with the worst of ’em.

“When you combine music and spirituality, there’s nothing like it,” she says with a laugh. “It’s a deadly combination.”