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Shemekia Copeland: America's Child
by George Graham
(Alligator Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/25/2018)
The great blues tradition has given rise to rock and roll, and even to some extent jazz. The music continues to thrive, with an active scene, but these days most blues performers tend to hew to the conventions in terms of instrumentation, lyrical subjects, etc., with the emotions of the performances being the distinguishing features. In recent years, some alternative rock bands, like the Black Keys, have ventured into blues territory in terms of material, giving a decidedly more electric and raw approach than even the long-time Chicago electric blues school. This week, we have an interesting new album by a blues performer who has made a recording that could be described as a kind of singer-songwriter record, though the original songs were written by others, with the lyrics going well beyond the usual blues topics of infidelity and heartbreak. It’s the new album by Shemekia Copeland called America’s Child.
Shemekia Copeland is a second generation blues singer, the daughter of Texas blues great Johnny Clyde Copeland. She emerged with her debut album Turn the Heat Up in 1998, at age 18, and has been recording more or less steadily since then. She has has maintained a non-stop touring schedule, which brought her to our region a few times, to the US troops in Iraq and Kuwait, and also to the White House with B.B. King in 2012 to perform for President Obama.
For her new album, Ms. Copeland went to Nashville and worked with songwriters and musicians there. But America’s Child is anything but a country album. Her main collaborator on the project was guitarist, songwriter and producer Will Kimbrough. Guests on the album include John Prine, who contributes a song, Emmylou Harris, Rhiannon Giddens, and another first-rate songwriter Mary Gauthier. Another frequent songwriting contributor was John Hahn. It seems that much of the material was written for this album, though there are some covers of older songs, including one from Ms. Copeland’s father Johnny.
With the direction of the songwriting, America’s Child is definitely not your typical blues album, or Nashville one, for that matter. Some of the songs consider contemporary topics like the re-emergence of hate and racism in the Trump age, as well as a song celebrating diversity. But there are also some songs on more conventional topics like relationships, and the John Prine composition, which is typically quirky lyrically. Ms. Copeland became a mother last year, so there are a couple of relevant songs, considering the kind of world her son was being brought into, and the album ends with a lullaby.
The production is crisp and the musicianship first-rate. The band includes Kimbrough on the guitars, bassist Lex Price and the solid drumming of Pete Abbott. Ms. Copeland is a versatile vocalist who adapts well to the different lyrical directions of the songs, and she does have a chance here and there to belt out the blues, which she can do so powerfully.
Opening is a song that sets the lyrical direction for much of the album, Ain’t Got Time for Hate by Will Kimbrough and John Hahn. The powerful song is relevant with the arrival of her child, and the state of the world. The backing vocalists include Emmylou Harris, Mary Gauthier and John Prine. <<>>
The following piece also has resonance in 2018, Americans is a celebration of diversity with witty lyrics. It was co-written by Mary Gauthier, and has a kind of New Orleans blues. <<>>
A song by John Hahn and Will Kimbrough Would You Take My Blood addresses the subject of racism with an interesting spin – asking the question would a bigot take accept a transfusion from an African American if it would save his life. <<>>
The song by John Prine, co-written by Michael Campbell, is called Great Rain. It’s a lot bluesier than usual for Prine, who makes an appearance doing lead vocals on a couple of the verses. <<>>
Rhiannon Giddens appears playing banjo an acoustic tune by Mary Gauthier, called Smoked Ham and Peaches. It’s about as close as this Nashville-made album comes to country. Ms. Copeland handles it with aplomb. <<>>
The song by Ms. Copeland’s father Johnny Copeland, is I Promised Myself, which is a slow soul-style tune, lyrically more like the blues. Ms. Copeland really nails the vocal performance. Making a guest appearance is legendary guitarist Steve Cropper. <<>>
One interesting cover on the album is I’m Not Like Everybody Else, a tune by Ray Davies originally recorded by the Kinks. It makes the transition to a blues anthem well. <<>>
The album ends with a traditional lullaby Go to Sleepy Baby, which is done mostly a cappella, and probably inspired by Ms. Copeland’s young son. <<>>
Shemekia Copeland’s new album America’s Child is an excellent recording by a versatile blues-based artist. While maintaining a blues ambiance, the album is lot more eclectic than typical for a blues record. Some of the songs touch on contemporary social commentary. And the album having been recorded in Nashville, does impart a different feeling. While Ms Copeland did not write the material, the songwriters, mostly creating music specifically for the record, have some up with first-rate material which Ms. Copeland delivers with her wide vocal range, from slow soul ballad style to energetic electric blues.
Our grade for audio quality is close to an “A.” The mix has good clarity, the vocals are clean, warm and unfettered by effects, and the band’s instrumental sound is punchy.
Though best-known as one of the rising stars of the blues, Shemekia Copeland proves her versatility and definite level of class on her new release America’s Child.
(c) Copyright 2018 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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