Shemekia Copeland: Never Count Out the Blues
Photos by Sandrine Lee
She's never lived here, but Shemekia Copeland is Houston blues royalty all the same. Her late father Johnny Clyde Copeland was one of the guitar princes of the Third Ward scene from the '50s to the mid-'70s, lighting up clubs like Shady's Playhouse alongside Albert Collins, Joe "Guitar" Hughes, Johnny "Guitar" Watson and a young Little Joe Washington. Copeland moved to New York and became one of the blues' biggest stars of the '80s and '90s; Showdown!, his 1985 album with Collins and Robert Cray, won a Grammy.
Shemekia came along in 1979, a singer almost from the start whose father had her onstage at Harlem's famous Cotton Club at age eight. When his health began to fail (he passed in July 1997), she carried on the family line immediately. Last year she was officially crowned "Queen of the Blues" by Koko Taylor's daughter, Cookie, at the Chicago Blues Festival, and this February she sang alongside B.B. King, Mick Jagger, Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck and more at the "Red White and Blues" command performance for President Obama later broadcast on PBS.
The first time Rocks Off heard Copeland it was singing with her dad at Antone's in Austin in 1996 or so; we remember thinking, "Damn!" She's only gotten better. Her latest, 33 1/3 (Concord Music Group), reflects both Copeland's age and her interest in the sound of old vinyl LPs even as it crosses beyond the borders of traditional blues and R&B.
Here, she covers Lucinda Williams' "Can't Let Go" (written by Randy Weeks), Bob Dylan's "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" and J.J. Grey's "A Woman." But she also sings her dad's "One More Time," while Guy, an old friend, plays lead guitar on "Ain't Gonna Be Your Tattoo." Most of 33 1/3, though, was written by the Chicago-based Copeland's regular collaborators John Hahn and Oliver Wood of the Wood Brothers. (Oliver is the brother of Medeski, Martin & Wood's Chris Wood.)
Rocks Off spoke with Copeland last week from "somewhere in Massachusetts," where she was heading away from Cape Cod to a gig in Pennsylvania. Thursday she'll be a little closer to us, at Dosey Doe in The Woodlands.
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Rocks Off: I guess you grew up in New York, but I'm wondering if you've ever spent much time in Houston at all, since your dad lived here for so long.
Shemekia Copeland: My dad moved to New York in like 1975. I was born in '79, born and raised in New York. So I didn't spend any time in Houston, really. I was probably there with him once or twice before he passed, and then I was there for his funeral. And the only time I was there was for work after that.
RO: Fair enough. Who would you say a few of your favorite songwriters are right now?
SC: Well, I'd probably have to say the people I work with, who I absolutely adore. That would be John Hahn and Oliver Wood. But, you know, I'm very picky about songwriters. I feel like everybody and their mother thinks that they're a songwriter and really they're just somebody who wrote a song, and there's a big difference.
I like Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan and John Hiatt, they're great songwriters. I like Ry Cooder and people like that. I'm in love with Tom Waits. I like people who write interesting, cool things.
RO: What were you looking for when you were choosing songs for this record?
SC: I guess the same thing I'm always looking for, which is what I want to say at the time -- what I want to talk about, what I want to shed light on. Right now there's a whole lot of topics (laughs).
RO: How long have you known Buddy Guy?
SC: I guess about 17 years or so? Not sure. A long time.
RO: Why would you say blues is still relevant to people your age, and even younger?
SC: It's an American music. It's something that belongs to us; it's ours. It should always be relevant. It's a part of our culture, and if it wasn't for blues music, the other music wouldn't make sense. That's why it's relevant, and should always be.
RO: Are there any aspects of the blues you think could use a little updating?
SC: Ever since I started, I have tried to show people that blues is evolving and growing. And it is. Unfortunately, nobody knows it, because we're not on the radio and you don't see it on TV. But blues is still constantly evolving and growing. Just because other people don't know about it doesn't mean it's not happening.
RO: Between people like yourself and Gary Clark Jr., would you say there might be a little bit of a revival going on right now?
SC: I don't know. I don't put labels on things. I don't know what the hell's going on, but I know that as long as I'm out here, and a bunch of other people are out here that are doing this music or some form of it, and it's out here. It's growing.
Every so often people throw that out there, and they say, "oh, blues is having a resurgence." I don't focus on that. I've always been out here. I've been nonstop since I've started -- as far as I'm concerned, it's been out here for a long time.
My father was one of the most innovative blues artists there ever was, in terms of growing the music. He went to Africa, and made a record with a bunch of African musicians called Bringing It All Back Home, doing some amazing things with this genre. And that was back in the '80s, so even then this music was growing.
RO: Did you get a chance to say anything to the Obamas when you sang at the White House earlier this year?
SC: Oh yeah. Both President Obama and Mrs. Obama, on more than one occasion.
RO: What did they say?
SC: Ummmm... Mrs. Obama, in particular, is very interested in education, so when we were there myself, Keb'Mo and Trombone Shorty did like a "blues in schools" kind of show that was separate from the White House show. She brought in a bunch of children from all over the country who love music and play music, and we did a little class for them. So we talked about that, and how grateful she was that we were willing to do that.
The president, we talked about being from Chicago, because that's where they lived. Nothing major. We didn't talk about world peace or anything like that.
8:30 p.m. Thursday, October 25, at Dosey Doe, 25911 I-45 N, The Woodlands, 281-367-3774, www.doseydoe.com. Dinner is served at 6 p.m.
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