Shemekia Copeland is indeed America’s child. She was born in Harlem, New York and her first professional gig was at the famed Cotton Club. Her father was Texas bluesman and Blues Hall of Famer, Johnny Copeland. She was crowned new Queen of the Blues in Chicago. Former releases from Copeland were produced by legendary figures from New Orleans (Dr. John) and Memphis (Steve Cropper).
Her latest offering, America’s Child, via Alligator Records sees Copeland expand her Americanness even further as she adds Americana music to her customarily electric blues repertoire. Furthermore, she addresses the intricacies and difficulties of being American in 2018. Particularly those of an American of color.
On the very first track, “Ain’t Got Time For Hate,” Copeland sets the pace. Decidedly electric Americana in flavor, Shemekia’s powerhouse, warbling vocals pierce the veil of growing up in today’s America. This song is burning up the Americana radio charts right now, for good reason. Written by producers Will Kimbrough and John Hahn, the song gives direction to surviving in today’s political climate. There are things like strength and intelligence that help us survive, but hate isn’t one of them.
Kimbrough plays guitar and organ throughout the album, and the rest of the band is made up of Lex Price (bass), and Pete Abbott (drums). A bevy of heavy-weight guest artists add their talents to America’s Child, including Al Perkins (guitar/lap-steel), Paul Franklin (lap-steel), J.D. Wilkes (harmonica), Rhiannon Giddens (African banjo), Kenny Sears (fiddle), Steve Cropper (guitar), and John Prine (vocals). Heaven could nary choose a better backing choir as Kimbrough, Prine, Mary Gauthier, Emmylou Harris, Gretchen Peters, Katie Pruitt, Kristi Stassinopoulou, Tommy Womack, and Lisa Oliver Gray all add backing vocals to select tracks.
Through it all, Copeland’s industrial-strength voice brings the message. “Americans” has a second-line flavor while describing a laundry list of the people that make up the melting pot of our nation. “Still free/to be/you and me”. The song is straight to the point.
“Would You Take My Blood,” comes across as the first bluesy song on the record. This one will get a lot of people thinking. Prine shares vocal duties with Copeland on his song, “Great Rain.” Stax Records legend Steve Cropper brings his guitar chops to one of Shemekia’s father’s songs, “Promised Myself,” bringing out some true Memphis soul.
A mash of modern country and rock n roll make up “The Wrong Idea.” Anyone who has witnessed the bar shenanigans on any given Saturday night will relate. We’ve all seen those guys that spend most of the evening trying to hook up, while the women in the place find new and creative ways to fend them off. Copeland just tells it like it is.
“In the Blood of the Blues” is a poignant reminder that the genre, in its roots, is the African-American experience. From slavery to share-cropping, Jim Crow to voodoo, and Stovall to Chicago black Americans live, play, and share their unique stories with the world. Although not a traditionally blues sounding song, the point couldn’t be more clear.
The genre-bending continues with “Such a Pretty Flame,” and “One I Love,” before Copeland takes us to church on “I’m Not Like Everybody Else.” Although not a gospel song, Shemekia delivers it with the moaning fervor of a southern pastor.
A couple of our favorites on America’s Child come when the true Americana flavor bubbles to the top. “Smoked Ham and Peaches,” reminds us that simple things are the cure for a complicated life. Penned by Mary Gauthier, it’s as user-friendly as music gets. Easy and uncomplicated, Rhiannon Giddens’ banjo picking is just the ticket for this front-porch tune. “When the whole world seems fake/give me something real.”
America’s Child ends with the traditional “Go To Sleep Little Baby.” The unlikely combination of a lullaby and a field holler, most folks of this generation will be expecting the siren’s song from O Brother, Where Art Thou. Although probably the basis of that harmony-laden ditty, this version is older, with a haunting guitar intro from Kimbrough. Shemekia performs sans backing vocals, harmonies, or accompaniment, more than likely the way a plantation child would have heard it some 150 years ago.
The trend of artists mixing genres has long had its place in blues music and continues today. What Shemekia Copeland does on America’s Child is braid blues, folk, Americana, roots and soul, then bend them like a willow in the wind. At times the music is as attention-grabbing as a lash, and at others as soft as a cradleboard. The combination is nearly flawless. We predict big things from this record, and highly recommend it be in your collection.
Artist: Shemekia Copeland
Title: America’s Child
Label: Alligator Records
Release Date: August 3rd, 2018
Running Time: 48:56
*Feature image Shemekia Copeland © Mike White / Alligator Records