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Shemekia Copeland: Uncivil War
by George Graham
(Alligator Records, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/21/2020)
One of the things that makes the blues so appealing and timeless is the music’s directness and simplicity at its core, which the best blues performers raise to a high level with their soulful, and sometimes virtuosic performances. Lyrically, the blues tends toward the classic topics of unhappiness like infidelity, losing ones lover, poverty and the like.
This week, we have a new release from one of today’s best blues women, whose lyrical topics are wide ranging, and often making social commentaries, touching on the state of the world, sometimes harkening back to the lyrical style of the protest songs of the 1960s. She Shemekia Copeland, and her new release, her 10th, is called Uncivil War.
Shemekia Copeland is a second generation blues artist. Her father was the late Texas bluesman Johnny “Clyde” Copeland. Shemekia, who was born in New York, was regularly performing in her father’s tours when she as 18, taking an increasingly prominent role as her father’s health made it harder for the senior Copeland. She released her debut album Turn the Heat Up in 1998, making it when she was 18 years old. Since then, she has developed a reputation as an outstanding performer through her live concerts, and her previous albums have won numerous Blues Music Awards.
Uncivil War is a sequel to her much-praised 2018 album America’s Child, in which she addressed the some of the issues of the day, in a recording made in, of all places, Nashville, working with a number of Nashville-based musicians, and creating as much a singer-songwriter style record as a blues album, and featuring a guest appearance by the late John Prine.
The new album features the same producer as America’s Child, Will Kimbrough, and many of the same players, who are not afraid to go beyond the blues style, and sprinkle in a little country and folk influence at times. While Ms. Copeland is not credited as songwriter, many of the compositions were written or co-written by her manager John Hahn, who has created quite a few songs that Ms. Copeland performs. The album’s producer Will Kimbrough is also a frequent songwriting contributor. Uncivil War features number of notable instrumental guests, including Jason Isbell, a roots artists in his own right, and member of the Drive-By Truckers, rock guitar pioneers Steve Cropper of Booker T and the MGs, and Duane Eddy, king of the “twang guitar,” plus up-and-comer “Christone” Kingfish Ingram, and bluegrass luminaries Sam Bush on mandolin and Jerry Douglas on Dobro. The result is an engaging, lyrically insightful, soulful album of blues that can that can also make you think.
Opening is a song called Clotinda’s On Fire. The Clotilda was the last slave ship that arrived in America in 1859, long after the slave trade was banned. The captain burned the ship to destroy the evidence. Jason Isbell is heard on guitar. <<>>
Another great song of social commentary written by John Hahn and Will Kimbrough is Walk Until I Ride, which addresses discrimination and continuing segregation in housing. <<>>
Ms. Copeland addresses a problem she took up on her previous album, the current toxic political atmosphere, in this album’s title track Uncivil War. It brings in a little folk, bluegrass, and a bit of Gospel influence with the appearances by Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas. <<>>
The late New Orleans piano legend Dr. John produced Ms. Copeland’s 2002 album Talking to Strangers. She pays tribute to him on a song called Dirty Saint, also written by Hahn and Kimbrough. The band gives it an appropriately Crescent City-influenced groove. <<>>
The album features a couple of covers. One of the most musically interesting arrangements is Ms. Copeland’s treatment of the Rolling Stones’ Under My Thumb. It is given a an unexpectedly laid back feel with only hand percussion, rather than a full drum set. <<>>
Another lyrically powerful song on the album is Apple Pie and a .45, which makes a strong statement about the proliferation of guns and the innocent lives lost that comes with them. <<>>
Also addressing the state of the world is She Don’t Wear Pink, which takes up gender stereotypes, and trans people. <<>>
The album ends with a song by her father Johnny Copeland called The Love Song, a more lyrically conventional bluesy track. Stylistically, the arrangement is reminiscent of the doo-wop era. <<>>
Shemekia Copeland has established herself as one of the most outstanding women blues singers today with her combination of soulful, charismatic delivery, with literate, thoughtful and often powerful songs written for her by John Hahn and Will Kimbrough. The album’s Nashville recording venue allows it to draw on musicians from backgrounds from country and bluegrass to rock soul and of course, the blues. It’s a generous collection of a dozen songs that all have something to offer, all tastefully performed.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A.” There is good clarity on the instrumentation and Ms. Copeland’s vocals were commendably cleanly recorded, capturing much of the power of her singing. The dynamic range is not at an audiophile level, but the recording maintains a satisfying level of immediacy.
Straight-out blues and musical eclecticism may at one time have seemed an oxymoron, but on Uncivil War, Shemekia Copeland has raised the bar, and created perhaps the finest album of her career.
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