Shemekia Copeland's Blues Journey: "It Changed Who I Am"
Sandrine Lee for Concord Music
Blues chanteuse Shemekia Copeland may have never actually lived in Houston, but as the daughter of legendary Bayou City bluesman Johnny "Clyde" Copeland (1937-1997), she heard a lot about it growing up.
"My daddy was from Houston, and Texans love being from Texas!" she laughs. "So it's a wonderful thing. He just loved being a Texan. And I am happy to represent him in that way."
And though she's only 34, Copeland has had plenty of experience stretching back to when her father would bring the teen out onstage as a little girl. Her debut record, Turn the Heat Up, appeared when she was only 19.
Her most recent effort, last year's, 33 1/3 (Concord), was not only titled for her age, but reflected a more mature outlook on life and concerns about it, as well as a further step away from the straight gutbucket blues of earlier efforts.
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"I have aged with my albums," Copeland offers. "And your life changes, and you see what's going on in the world, and you want to talk about it a little."
So there's are songs tackling subjects like poverty ("Lemon Pie"), the unholy mixture of politics and religion ("Somebody Else's Jesus"), domestic abuse ("Ain't Gonna Be Your Tattoo"), and thinking that's "stuck in the past" ("Mississippi Mud").
There's also covers of Lucinda Williams (Randy Weeks-written "Can't Let Go"), Sam Cooke ([Ain't That] Good News"), Bob Dylan ("I'll Be Your Baby Tonight"), and even her father's "One More Time."
"We deal with discrimination in this country that you wouldn't believe," she says. "Racism, sexism, but the worst is when you are discriminated against because you are poor. That is just horrible. And when you have all these people who can't separate politics from religion. It's really sad, and it bothers me."
A bit closer to her heart -- and her passion -- is singing for military personnel overseas. Having already done shows in Iraq and Kuwait, she will also perform at Walter Reed Medical Center later this month. Copeland doesn't hesitate to call her musical tours of duty "life-changing" and "eye-opening," but not necessarily in positive ways.
"It's hard to wrap my head around the fact that they are so young. They can't rent a car or buy a house, but they can die for their country!" she offers, her voice rising. "Over here, you don't know what's going on over there, because the media is such crap. So to go there and live on bases with these guys and see how they live... it was amazing. It changed who I am."
And Shemekia Copeland's biggest takeaway from her journey?
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Throughout her career, Copeland has been compared favorably to the faces on the Mount Rushmore of blues divas: Koko Taylor, Etta James, Ruth Brown, and LaVern Baker, names trotted out in every article written about her (including, sadly, this one...).
But rather than take offense, Copeland is glad to be mentioned in the same breath or newspaper column as those ladies.
"I know they have to make a comparison, and if I'm being compared to those women, that's great. I'm not being compared to...I don't know...Linda Lovelace!" she laughs. "And those ladies were incredibly kind and generous to me. I got to know them outside of their profession. And they did amazing things for me."
A more recent influence has been Austin-based blues-rock wunderkind Gary Clark Jr. Copeland performed a duet with him on her own song "Beat Up Guitar" during a White House tribute to the blues last year that was broadcast on PBS.
"I think he's an extremely talented guy. He didn't know my song at all until the day before, and he learned it," she says. "He's not like these little boys [playing blues]. He's had some [life] experience. I love him, though. And he can make my 17-year-old niece excited! She was screaming!"
Shemekia Copeland plays a free concert at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, October 17 at Discovery Green, 1500 McKinney. Annika Chambers opens.
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