In the world of public relations, few publicists have excelled at the craft of building artists’ reputations—and when necessary, finessing celebrity career crises—or shepherding their long-term legacy than Elaine Schock.
For several years now Elaine and SHOCK INK have developed winning media campaigns for a remarkable and enviable client list that includes legendary singer-songwriter and activist Willie Nelson; the wildly successful (and sometimes provocative) Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee Toby Keith; matchless pop, R&B, and jazz icon, hitmaker, and GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Roberta Flack; and one of America’s greatest songwriters and composers Jimmy Webb. In addition, Elaine and SHOCK INK helped bring deserved attention to the wizardry of former Parliament/Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell’s latter-day streak of genius, before his death in 2016. Elaine also took pleasure in assisting the rise of Cody Jinks as one of country music’s foremost independent artists.
Presently, one of Elaine and SHOCK INK’s more singular clients isn’t so much a person as a cause that is also a uniquely American enterprise: Willie’s Reserve— a cannabis brand reflecting Willie Nelson’s longstanding experience with marijuana and a commitment to providing regulated, natural, and high quality strains of cannabis in U.S. legal markets. When Willie’s Reserve—which was co-founded with the singer’s wife, Annie Nelson— was announced in 2015, one journalist noted: “The marijuana world is about to get its first connoisseur brand, edging it farther from an illegal substance and closer to the realm of fine wines.” It was a brave undertaking, considering that marijuana’s legalization hadn’t yet advanced to its present widespread acceptability. Nelson, though, believed in cannabis’s legalization—he had been up front for years about both the cause and the ways in which cannabis had helped him.
Elaine is proud of her efforts on behalf of Willie’s Reserve. “Willie is an American icon,” she says. “He is an activist who has committed the majority of his life to legalizing cannabis for medical and recreational purposes and helping local farmers who will prosper harvesting this crop.”
In mid-2019, Nelson and Annie launched an additional cannabis-related endeavor, Willie’s Remedy—a line of hemp-derived CBD products designed specially to aid well-being. (CBD is an essential component of medical marijuana. While it is derived directly from the hemp plant—a cousin of the marijuana plant—CBD does not cause a “high” and is now legal throughout the U.S.) Willie’s Remedy line now includes CBD-infused varieties of balm, tincture, coffee, and tea. Elaine is proud of her efforts on behalf of Willie’s Reserve and Willie’s Remedy. Says Annie Nelson: “Willie’s Remedy is all about giving people easy access to the healing benefits of hemp in the same way we look to other plants for wellness.”
Elaine has worked with singular clients—and pulled off feats of promotion for them—her entire career.
After tenures in the publicity departments of landmark record labels in London, Los Angeles, and New York—a period in which she worked with such artists as Bob Dylan and Donna Summer—Elaine founded her own PR firm, Shock Ink, in Pelham, New York, in 1987. “The company started in my basement,” says Elaine, “with an assistant and postage and fax machines. We got bigger and bigger, and finally moved to an office. It wasn’t fancy but it wasn’t out of my house either. From there my company grew until we were arguably the biggest music-only independent PR firm on the East Coast.” In that early incarnation, the company’s diverse client base came to include Sinéad O’Connor, Billy Joel, Genesis, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Shawn Colvin, Harry Connick Jr., Duran Duran, Henry Rollins, Johnny Marr, the Waterboys, and the Stone Roses, among others.
Says Elaine: “My company was enormously successful. Then I got an offer that I couldn’t refuse, and I could bring my entire staff with me.”
That opportunity came in 1995, when RCA Records—impressed by Shock Ink’s continuing success—proffered Elaine a position as the label’s Senior Vice President on the creative side: It was the first such calling in the record company’s then 66-year-old history. The hiring proved crucial in several respects. RCA had become a moribund label and was thinking of changing its name to revive its image and gather new talent. Elaine insisted on stopping that idea. The company went on to fire virtually all employees and kept only a few artists, while attracting new blood.
That’s where Elaine and her team worked their wonders, as the label essentially restarted from scratch. An early major success took place with *NSYNC, a fledgling, Orlando, Florida- area boy band that RCA was on the verge of dropping. But Elaine believed strongly in their potential—she saw them as talents with long-term promise. She did not want to see RCA lose that prospect, nor did she want to see the group sold short. In May, 1998, when the Backstreet Boys backed out of an appearance on the Disney Channel, Elaine seized the advantage and booked *NSYNC to take their place. The special aired that year on July 18, and launched the group’s meteoric rise to fame in the U.S. Most fans cited it as their gateway to *NSYNC. That was the group’s turning point. Rolling Stone designated the event as “one of the Top 25 Teen Idol Breakout Moments of all time.” RCA kept the group and Elaine helped nurture them to their preeminence as what AllMusic has described as “leaders of the millennial wave of boy bands with smooth harmonies and even smoother dance-pop.” *NSYNC went on to sell more than 70 million records and yielded Justin Timberlake as a multifaceted superstar singer and actor.
At RCA, Elaine also helped launch the stellar career of Christina Aguilera, another former Disney star. Christina radiated beauty and idol potential, but Elaine wanted foremost to establish her prestige as a true vocal prodigy, as opposed to Britney Spears, who was known primarily as a teen queen phenomenon. Elaine knew that the latter kind of success could prove problematic, even limiting, and whose musical profile paid the price for that image. Elaine made sure that Christina’s early hits— “Genie in a Bottle,” “What a Girl Wants,” “Come
on Over”—not only demonstrated a singer with infectious pop appeal but also one with authority and sweep. Elaine made sure to position her as a step above the rest—an artist, not a craze. Elaine garnered respect for Aguilera as a bona fide R&B singer. (Critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine referred to her as a “brassy diva of the bunch…the Rolling Stones to Britney Spears’ Beatles.)” At the 42nd Annual GRAMMY Awards in February 2000, Aguilera won Best New Artist, beating out Britney Spears, Macy Gray, Kid Rock, and Susan Tedeschi, to the surprise of many—even Aguilera herself. After that, the singer better realized her own gifts— her instinctive R&B and jazz abilities. Since then, Aguilera has sold more than 75 million records, ranked at number 58 on Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Greatest Singers of All Time and was a coach on six seasons of the singing competition television show The Voice—the series that buried American Idol. While at RCA, Elaine also secured the Dave Matthews Band’s first TV appearance, on Saturday Night Live. In subsequent years Matthews went on to sell in excess of 100 million concert tickets and a combined total of more than 91 million CDs and DVDs.
With Elaine’s help, RCA Records was reborn and remains a vital successful label to this day. In 2000, though, Elaine found herself longing to return her independent career.
Said RCA Senior Vice President/General Manager Jack Rover, of Elaine: “She has been an instrumental part of the team which has revived RCA Records and led to four consecutive record-breaking sales years.” Said Elaine: “I wouldn’t have missed the four-plus years at RCA for anything. I’m thrilled we were able to turn things around and experience the kind of success we did. But I’m also looking forward to re-launching Shock Ink.” She later wrote: “As soon as I could, I left to set up shop in my lovely hometown of L.A., where it was warm and sunny and I didn’t have to commute to NYC, where winters were so cold.”
Shock Ink had not been in Los Angeles long when, in late 2002, Elaine was asked to represent a major—and sometimes controversial—artist, Toby Keith. “Toby had heard about me,” she recalls, “and invited me to a show in San Bernardino. When I saw him, right then and there I knew he was a superstar. He was a good a vocalist as I had ever heard. I wasn’t expecting that. It was a ‘wow’ moment for me. Also, there was a connection to his audience that made it a great performance. Not unlike Billy Joel whose performances who I had worked with for nearly 14 years. Every show was remarkable.”
Seen by some as a modern-day honky-tonk singer, Keith was in fact a writer with a great sense of the moment, whether it was musical or social, which earned him a label as a “new traditionalist.” When Elaine became his publicist, Toby had already enjoyed a reputation as a commercially and critically well-received country music star, with such hits as “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” and “Who’s That Man.” When his label at the time didn’t believe in the 1999 song “How Do You Like Me Now?!”—didn’t believe it could be a hit—Keith extracted himself from that deal—at considerable expense—and took the song and his new album elsewhere. “How Do You Like Me Now?!” went on to be one of his biggest hits, holding five weeks at No. 1, catapulting the album of the same name to multi-platinum status (more than 3.5 million sold), and becoming ACM Album of Year. It was a breakthrough moment.
Elaine recognized that Toby Keith, in effect, was an iconoclast—not at all a predictable Nashville-style entertainer. Instead, he was about bucking the system, and far too talented and singular to be confined to walking a proverbial one-way country music street, and Elaine welcomed that challenge and growth opportunity. “Let’s go in a different direction,” she said. “Your direction.” Elaine moved him past the 1990s cookie cutter-mold of country artists—the obvious polished imagery of big cowboy hats and shiny blazers—and showed him for authentic working-class figure that he truly was. In turn that helped loosen Toby and, as Elaine noted, his Easy Money Band as one of the most dynamic live performing in all popular music for several years in the running now—fully the equal of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in their heyday.
However, when Shock Ink took on Toby as a client in 2002, public perception of him was also a little problematic. In March 2001, Keith’s father, H.K. Covel—a United States Army veteran—was killed in a car accident. That event and the attacks of September 11th that same year prompted Keith to write “Courtesy of the Red, White And Blue (The Angry American),” a song about his father’s patriotism and faith in the United States. “ It was written in 20 minutes the day following the 9/11 attacks,” says Elaine. “Toby sang it for the troops and never intended it for a record. But after one performance at a military event, the generals in attendance asked him to please record it for morale. He did. He also went on to perform more USO shows than any entertainer since Bob Hope. If you served in Iraq or Afghanistan at the time, then you saw Toby perform. But the song was perceived as a right-wing hawk anthem. I actually didn’t understand that. Having just left New York, I’d had numerous neighbors who died in the attack. Giving the terrorists a ‘boot in their ass’ was the least we could do. So, I understood that song and its meaning.”
Even so, “Courtesy of the Red, White And Blue (The Angry American)” upset some. One newscaster wouldn’t allow Toby to perform it on a TV special. Also, some artists took offense. Elaine, though, knew that Toby certainly wasn’t as politically hidebound as some made him out to be; his songs weren’t about kneejerk jingoism, but rather about legacy and loyalty. “Toby is viewed as a right-wing republican,” says Elaine, “when in fact he is a moderate Democrat, or at times an Independent. It was one song that defined him. Though he has written a few patriotic songs, he has many more drinking songs and love songs in his repertoire.” Elaine advised Toby to avoid any toll-taking arguments or feuds. “He realized there are far more important things to concentrate on,” she said at the time, referring specifically to Toby establishing an annual spring benefit, a golf classic, to raise funds for The Toby Keith Foundation’s OK Kids Korral, an Oklahoma City haven that hosts entire families cost-free as their child receives cancer treatment.
“I was there when it was just an idea,” says Elaine. “We were at the Jimmy Kimmel Live show, on Toby’s bus, waiting. He talked about his ex-guitar player and that his 2 1/2 year old had terminal cancer. Toby sent them to St. Jude Medical Center. The parents couldn’t work—they had to be with their little girl and take her brother along. Their daughter died around her third birthday, at home, where she wanted to be. It was hard to understand that that baby passed away. So, in grief Toby started to raise money for a home for pediatric cancer patients and their families near the children’s medical center in Oklahoma City, based on the St. Jude model. You are provided with everything, even toiletries.”
Toby founded the annual golf benefit 18 years ago, and OK Kids Korral opened in 2013. “Over the years, OK Kids Korral became this wonderful place. Lovely suites, a movie theater, playground, library, and communal kitchen where there is a waiting list of prominent chefs who volunteer to cook. Oxygen is piped in for a safer environment, because a child’s immune system is compromised by chemotherapy. At the event, there is an auction and golf tournament, both to help raise funds.”
To date, more than $15 million has been raised, and Elaine visits OK Kids Korral every year. “It hurts to see the kids. It’s not right that they have to suffer. Their pain is obvious, but it has to be worse to be the parents. My own spouse battled a life-threatening illness, and that was bad enough. The courage it takes for parents to care for a small child with cancer is way beyond my comprehension. The truth is, children don’t always make it, and some years are worse than others. I remember there was a time of too many funerals and some staff quitting because they couldn’t take it. There were some kids that came back a number of times, the cancer leaving their little bodies only temporarily. But there is also joy seeing many children that are now healthy.
“When this event happens, we are all in it together. There is nothing that tears us apart. We are all united for a cause.”
Elaine and Toby Keith have worked steadily together for 20 years now. She takes great satisfaction in witnessing his continuing growth as an artist and songwriter. Indeed, she helped maneuver the success of 2003’s “Beer for My Horses” (a duet with Willie Nelson in which the two of them hunt down gangsters in the cowboy way then raise a toast to their deeds), and it was her effort that, in 2011, propelled the video of Toby’s “Red Solo Cup” into a viral phenomenon. (As a result, the song became Keith’s highest-peaking crossover hit, reaching number 15 on the Hot 100.) Elaine’s efforts consistently paid off: “Red Solo Cup” won the ACM Award’s Video of the Year Award in 2012. That same year, Keith was named Artist of the Decade by the American Country Awards, and also Country Artist of the Decade by Billboard.
Elaine and Toby Keith have formed an exemplary working bond throughout the years, with deep mutual respect. “Toby supported me when I asked him to perform in Norway at the Nobel Prize Peace Concert for President Obama, in 2009,” she says. “It is a long way from Oklahoma, but he did it. Knowing how much it meant to me, he made sure I got a ticket to see the ceremony. I was a few feet away from the presentation. Thrilling is an understatement.
“Toby also never questioned me when I asked him to appear on The Colbert Report on Comedy Central—even though he had never seen it—because I loved the show and he trusted me. He was one of the few country artists to appear regularly. Stephen would come into the dressing room and Toby would be sleeping because we would start promo work early in the morning. I assured Stephen that I prepped Toby that this was a crazy interview with a conservative character host and that was the joke. They became buddies and Stephen gave the introduction for Toby at the ceremony to induce him into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, in 2015. At the end of one Colbert appearance, Stephen and Toby sang a terrific a cappella version of the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’ It was a spur of the moment thing, and they both spurred each other on. Toby also appeared on the last Colbert Report show, at the end of 2014. Everyone who was anyone was there, and Toby introduced me to a hero of mine, Gloria Steinem. I think Toby and I each took the other places we might not have gone otherwise.”
For his part, Toby says simply: “I’ve got the best publicist in the world. Elaine kicks every other publicist’s ass.”
Elaine’s association with Toby soon introduced her to Willie Nelson. “I met Willie a few weeks after Toby,” she says. “They were doing a video shoot for ‘Beer For My Horses,’ and Willie asked if I would be his publicist a few minutes after we first met. He said, he hadn’t had a publicist in 22 years, and would I consider the job? Hell yes. Usually, I have to give my resume and do an interview to get a job, but not with Willie. He knows instinctively what works for him. I still pinch myself and it has been 19 years since that day.”
With Willie, Elaine was well aware that she was now working for somebody with a matchless historical past. Nelson had already had made an incomparable body of music: He’d been proven one of popular music’s greatest songwriters, and its most prolific and tireless artist, touring and recording constantly—with more than 100 albums under his belt. After all, during his early years in Nashville, in the 1960s, Willie had already written songs at a level of craft and insight matching any other songwriter in country or popular music—though for a long time producers and labels couldn’t figure out how to accommodate his performance style. After Nelson recorded the sparse-sounding and haunting Red Headed Stranger in 1975, he never second-guessed his music, and didn’t pause for anybody who did. He’d passed every audition, he’d made masterpieces that opened doors for both himself and others, and he’d shown confident and impeccable instincts. He also demonstrated a match less range: country music, gospel, Tin Pan Alley-indebted pop, blues, R&B, reggae, and more besides. You might wonder: What could any publicist provide for such a Mount Rushmore-like figure?
In truth, Elaine quickly realized she was seeing something she hadn’t witnessed before: A 70- year-old prodigy who was just entering an amazingly rich autumnal period—an artist with not only an unassailably historic past but an historical present and future as well. When Elaine began working with Nelson he was entering a remarkable run of albums. Some were thematic (The Great Divide, It Always Will Be, Songbird, Heroes, Band of Brothers), some were collaborations (with Kimmie Rhodes, Asleep at the Wheel, Wynton Marsalis, and lifelong compatriots Ray Price and Merle Haggard), tributes to other artists (Cindy Walker, Ray Charles, George Gershwin, and Frank Sinatra) and some form an ongoing storytelling cycle that is partly autobiographical and stand among the best works of his oeuvre (God’s Problem Child, Last Man Standing, and Ride Me Back Home). And there are more to come. Like her work with Toby Keith, Elaine’s efforts on behalf of Willie Nelson have taken her to incomparable moments and places: a star-studded John Lennon tribute, the White House, and the Smithsonian, among places and events.
“Willie has no peers,” Elaine says. “He writes songs constantly and his voice and guitar work are matchless. My job is not only promoting his music and other projects, such as movies and books, but most of all my job is being responsible for the public’s awareness of his legacy. We are all better for having Willie Nelson on this earth. Working with him has been one of the most rewarding parts of my career.”
At 89, Willie Nelson remains vital. Which is to say that his current-day music is in keeping with his current-day life: always moving, never done, pushing ahead, restless. In recent years he’s been dogged by numerous death rumors. Sometimes these false reports have unsettled Elaine, but her job is to set the story straight before it also unsettles his fans or family. “Unless I am in his presence, they scare me,” she says. “He laughs it off but these hoaxes are horribly cruel.” Willie does indeed laugh it all off: “I woke up still not dead again today,” he sang in one song a couple years back. “I run up and down the road making music as I go/They say my pace would kill a normal man/But I’ve never been accused of being normal anyway/And I woke up still not dead again today.”
Every night she sees Willie onstage, Elaine says, amounts to a new revelation that will draw her—as well as many in his incredibly widespread and diverse audience— back the next night, and the night after that. “People like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters exemplified that calling,” she says. “Bob Dylan does too; he doesn’t need to do what he does for any purposes of legend or reward. Night after night, they drew people in to see them, no matter whether they were playing large amphitheaters or small clubs, because they were still expressing their lives and souls. Nobody, though, represents and lives this better than Willie Nelson. Do yourself a favor. If nothing else hear his renditions of ‘Somebody to Watch Over Me’ and ‘But Not for Me,’ from his 2018 Sinatra tribute, My Way. There’s undeniably art and talent in every phrase and measure, but there’s also the meanings that music carries, its love and humor and desire and pain, as well as its inner strengths, that gives the singer the ability to make these songs his own epiphanies as well as our own illumination and memory. Willie, thank you.”
Elaine has seen countless of Willie Nelson’s live revelations—in the same way she sees all her artists perform as much as possible. “I think it is important,” she says, “if you are going to speak for an artist that you know that artist. It puts you at a disadvantage if you do not. The relationship is unlikely to last for any length of time.”
Elaine and SHOCK INK also currently represent a divergent stable of artists that includes: mordant and funny alt-country singer-songwriter Fred Eaglesmith, from Ontario, as well as his wife, multi-instrumentalist Tif Ginn; venerable hard-hitting blues, roots-rock, gospel singer Shelley King; gritty country artist Krystal Keith (a singer-songwriter like her father, Toby, though she stands shiningly on her own); Lukas Nelson and his band Promise of the Real, whose spectacular recent albums, Something Real and Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, ranged from what Lukas described as “cowboy hippie surf rock” to feverish blues-rock, and their collaborations with Neil Young, on both the beautiful yet rageful The Monsanto Years and on stage, made for edgy and meaningful noise; and Venice, California-based band Insect vs. Robots, led by Micah Nelson (aka Particle Kid), whose music is part lovely dream—with Grateful Dead-sounding and jazz derived time signatures — but whose lyrics can amount to timely apocalyptic warnings. (Micah—Lukas’s brother—is a frequent guest member of Promise of the Real, who appeared in Bradley Cooper’s 2018 remake of A Star is Born. In addition, both Lukas and Micah have recorded and performed with their father, Willie.) In addition, SHOCK INK represents award-winning songwriter, guitarist, producer and artist Mac McAnally, ten-times CMA Awards winner for Musician of the Year, who has surpassed legendary guitarist Chet Atkins for the most wins in that category.
Whether it’s proven legends like Willie Nelson and Toby Keith, or rising artists, Elaine says, “We fight hard for our artists to get the media coverage they deserve, and I’m confident we do the best job possible to achieve the goals and desires of our clients. We don’t ask for contracts because it is important for the artist to be happy with the services we provide and to pay on that basis only. Every artist gets my personal attention. I am always available by cell, e-mail, on the phone, or in person. I take their careers seriously. I know how important a responsibility that is.”
Artist and entertainers aren’t the only focus and beneficiaries of the Shock treatment. Elaine’s press plan for the acclaimed 2001 HBO film Shot in the Heart(based on the book by Mikal Gilmore) resulted in prolific and prominent national media exposure, including a TV Guidecover story and a New York Times’ Arts & Leisure Section feature.
In recent years, Elaine has expanded her talents to include serious writing. That wasn’t her intent, but it came as a necessity. In late 2015, she and her husband, venerable music journalist and prize-winning author Mikal Gilmore (1994’s Shot in the Heart, his account of growing up with a violent family’s historical impact) were told that he had developed throat cancer. The diagnosis was stage IV. As Elaine later said: “There is nothing after that, there isn’t a stage V.” She goes on: “I used to be able to count on one hand the people I knew who had cancer. Or at least I thought so. I know now that people don’t always tell you.”
To her dismay, Elaine learned there were no support groups available to help cope with the ordeal of HPV-related throat cancer, even though the disease was reaching epidemic proportions. She decided to turn to the community of thousands that the couple had amassed on Facebook. She began writing weekly reports, on Saturdays, about Gilmore’s changing health—his prognosis, his setbacks—and he contributed when possible. Something remarkable developed: The posts became a forum—a gathering center for others who had seen or felt cancer up close, as well as those who wanted simply to offer their concern for the couple. “Numerous people diagnosed with HPV-related tongue/throat cancer contacted me,” she says. “I understood their concern. Their lives were forever changed, for worse or maybe for better. They have to worry about treatment, finances, and family comfort. It isn’t easy to navigate.”
As a result, Elaine’s missives became informative as much as they were personal. Week after week a narrative began taking shape, about illness, tentative recovery, marriage, family, fear, hope, and community. What grew from the act of posting—talking out loud in public—were bonds of kindness and love. The Facebook page became a place where people could be honest and be heard. “Cancer is difficult because it implies mortality and you look ill,” says Elaine. “People don’t know how to deal with that. It makes them uncomfortable. Occasionally friends or relations walk away. We talked about all that. We helped each other, plus I documented my marriage and family, as we went through frightening and uncertain months.”
After a year and a half of these posts, as Mikal went into an unexpected recovery, Elaine realized that she and her husband had accrued enough material to compose a matchless book about their ordeal. In late 2016 she assembled all those and began editing them, forming one of the first major books composed entirely from original Facebook posts:Stay With Me, published in November 2019. “One thing I told people at the beginning of that process,” says Elaine, “was that I am not a writer, but I learned otherwise. It was tougher than I imagined, but maybe I was destined to do it, or maybe I just took a moment and ran with it. Stay With Me documents a marriage, and what it takes for a family to live through a catastrophic illness. You don’t really expect when you say ‘in sickness and in health’ that one of you will really get sick. I decided to do my best to fight this disease for my husband. You don’t leave your partner behind.”
Fighting against the odds—for people and music she believes in—is what Elaine has always done best. “I look forward to the future,” she says. “I only see more successes for us all.”
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