“Shemekia Copeland is one of the great blues voices of our time” Chicago Tribune
Shemekia Copeland is a blues powerhouse, with a stack of blues music awards to her name (Blues Music Awards, Living Blues Awards) and several Grammy nominations. She burst on to the scene in 1998 with Turn the Heat Up and has been lighting up stages and recording studios with the force of her personality, her incredible vocals and song-writing ever since. She’s opened for the Rolling Stones, and graced stages with B B King, Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton and Carlos Santana, and played for President and Mrs. Obama at the White House.
Her new album, America’s Child, produced by Nashville’s Will Kimbrough, is a compelling piece of work that sees Ms. Copeland branch out beyond the blues in which she’s made her name. To be sure there are great blues numbers here, but there’s rock and country too – overall it’s a great piece of Americana.
When Down at the Crossroads asked Shemekia how she would describe the album musically, she replied, “It’s rootsy. All American music is based on the blues, so I felt free to borrow from other genres like country and bluegrass.”
The album has a stellar cast of collaborators on the album – John Prine, Mary Gauthier, Emmylou Harris, Rhiannon Giddens, Steve Cropper and others. Shemekia clearly enjoyed working with each of them and told us, “Each one was incredibly generous. John Prine was so much fun to duet with, and Mary Gauthier is a wonderful person who happens to be one of the best writers in America.”
Gauthier has returned the compliment by saying, “America’s Child is a ground-breaking, genre-bending work of beauty. Shemekia is one of the great singers of our time…Her voice on these songs is nothing short of magic.”
Shemekia told us: “Rhiannon’s banjo took our song to a whole other level. Emmylou has the voice of an angel. I was so honoured. And Steve Cropper is my old friend and happens to be one of the greatest, most soulful guitarists in the history of music. I was blessed to have each of them.”
When asked about the background to the album – why this set of songs and what she was setting out to achieve with it, Shemekia said that last year she had given birth to Johnny Lee Copeland and that the album is her vision of the world she is bringing him into – “my vision of life in America today, and my hopes for the future.”
Shemekia Copeland is no stranger to biting social commentary in her work – in her 2015 album, Outskirts of Love, she addressed victims of date rape in Crossbone Beach and of domestic violence in Drivin’ Out of Nashville, the homeless, in Cardboard Box, and those living in poverty in Lord Help the Poor And Needy. And no less in American Child, she offers a social commentary and critique of the way things are in the United States at the moment in the songs I Ain’t Got Time for Hate, Americans and Would You Take My Blood. When asked how much it matters for artists and musicians to comment and make people think about what is going on, Shemekia said that for her it was important. “Music,” she said, “reaches people in ways that speeches and politics cannot. It’s emotional.”
There’s no shortage of emotion on this album, driven by the conviction and clarity of Ms. Copeland’s vocals, which range from tender in the closing lullaby to playful in One I Love to sassy on The Wrong Idea to earnest in In the Blood of the Blues, and everything in between. Although it’s not an out and out blues album, there’s a fine bluesy feel throughout, driven by the excellent guitar skills of Will Kimbrough and Steve Cropper. The song arrangements and tight band work combine with Ms. Copeland’s voice to make this an authentic and memorable album.
Would You Take My Blood written by John Hahn and Will Kimbrough directly addresses the problem of racism. “All I want is some respect,” sings Shemekia, and then pointedly asks someone who’s a racist if they’d be willing to take your blood if they were dying and needed it? It is appalling that these sorts of attitudes still seem to be so ingrained in the fabric of American life, and it’s sometimes hard to see how the problem be addressed. “An incredibly difficult question,” replied Shemekia. “A good start might be if people actually lived according to beliefs espoused by their religion. The golden rule would be a good place to start.” Ain’t that the truth?
Terry Abrahamson’s and Derrick Proce’s In the Blood of the Blues, is an outstanding blues song, with great guitar work from Kimbrough, who has played guitar with Emmylou Harris in recent years. It’s a stark reminder of the way the blues is rooted in the suffering of the black community – in slavery, sharecropping and Jim Crow injustice.
“I’m the twist in the wire tying every bale of cotton
I’m the shout in the field that echoes across the sea
I’m the newsprint walls in a one-room shack in Stovall
And the blade on the knife that cut my brother from the tree.”
Despite every week’s dispiriting news cycle seeming to confirm the need for the United States to properly come to terms with its past with respect to African Americans, when we asked Shemekia if, as she looks around at America today, does she have cause to be hopeful, she replied, “Totally, it’s still the greatest country on earth. I love it and it will always be my home.”
As well as the serious side to the record, there’s a sense of playfulness and joy here too. Shemekia told us, “Now with the birth of my son (born just two years ago), I’m a more joyful person than ever. And grateful.” She said in a previous interview with Forbes that, in fact, America’s Child is completely about Johnny Lee, who had changed her life. “You immediately become frustrated with the world you live in but you’re also hopeful for your child and hopeful that things will get better for him. That’s kind of what America’s Child is about.”
Thank you Shemekia.