History

Shemekia Copeland's Hard Turn Off Straight Blues Boulevard

Shemekia Copeland belts out The Truth on her latest record.
Shemekia Copeland belts out The Truth on her latest record. Photo by Victoria Smith
Like a lot of mothers who will see their first-born head off to kindergarten this month, Shemekia Copeland will cycle through a range of emotions once the drop-off actually happens.

As a Black parent, she knows that she’ll eventually have to have what’s commonly known as “The Talk” with her now five-year-old son about what to do if he’s ever stopped or confronted by the police. But as a singer, she can also put those feelings and thoughts into song, as she does in “The Talk” off her new record, Done Come Too Far (Alligator).

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Shemekia Copeland.
Photo by Victoria Smith
Words no mama wants to say/But I don’t wanna lose you someday/It’s as cruel as life can get/When a child looks like a threat,” Copeland sings with deep emotion and commitment.

Driving in her car, she expounds what she’s already doing now in this area. “I tell him all the time, ‘Discipline is going to save your life one day” Copeland says. “He doesn’t know what I’m talking about now, but I want him to remember it and think about it every day of his life. I tell the same thing to my nephews who are 16 and 19.”

She’s quick to admit to harboring a great respect for law enforcement—because every time they leave the house, she says, they are risking their lives to help keep people safe. But she says that we also have to acknowledge that there are some “bad apples out there…and that’s been proven over and over again.”

School is the partial setting of another track, “Pink Turns Red,” which references school shootings, the Las Vegas Harvest Music Festival mass killing, and conspiracy-peddler Alex Jones. And though written before the Uvalde school massacre, it’s sadly even more contemporary now.

“These days you just try hard not to be angry, and that justice will prevail and the truth will come out,” she offers. And she feels that’s exactly what’s happened with the recent judgements and verdicts against Jones.

“We do have these types of people, and he’s a horrible human being. I can’t even imagine what those parents felt! I can’t imagine some clown saying it didn’t happen when you don’t have your child anymore!” she says, emotion rising. “It’s something in this country that’s got to be dealt with. If we can’t deal with something, we can’t move forward. And I think we’re the country of sweeping things under the rug.”

Though she’s been putting out blues-based albums since 1998’s Turn the Heat Up, recorded while she was still a teenager, Copeland’s last trilogy of releases have shown marked shift in direction, topic and attention.
On America’s Child (2018) and Uncivil War (2020) a good portion of the material has directly—and bluntly—addressed the American Black Experience through the lenses of both the past and the present.

Done Come Too Far continues that streak. In addition to the songs already mentioned, there are those that address the Civil Rights Movement (the title track, “Too Far To Be Gone” which allude to Rosa Parks, John Lewis, MLK, Selma and Birmingham), slavery (“Gullah Geechee”), childhood sexual abuse (“The Dolls are Sleeping”) and female empowerment/expectations (“Dumb It Down”).

But the album has other more traditional blues moments, including a searing torch song (“Why Why Why”), rave-up zydeco party piece (“Fried Catfish and Bibles”) and the rollicking country “semi-autobiographical” tune “Fell in Love with a Honky” in which Copeland-as-narrator does just that.
About a week later had another date/Cooked me some chitlins and chicken fried steak/Offered me ice cream he was my kinda fella/He had chocolate I had me some vanilla/Things were heatin’ up I couldn’t help but notice/He stopped singing Hank switched right Into Otis,” Copeland offers with a comedic affected twang.

So…semi-autobiographical?

“We laugh about it all the time. My husband is not long and lanky and he’s a metal head. But he is white!” Copeland laughs. One guesses that “Fell in Love with a Headbanger” would not have been as funny.

Finally, there are covers of songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Barefoot in Heaven,” and her own father’s (the late, beloved Houston bluesman Johnny “Clyde” Copeland) “Nobody But You.” And while Shemekia was raised in Harlem, New York, she says she has sisters in Houston.

Circling back to her current path, Copeland credits the birth of her son with wanting to make the world a better place through her music. And that means delving into more challenging and topical material. It’s something that he doesn’t expect to stop anytime soon.
“I’ve always marched to the beat of my own drum anyway, so it doesn’t matter much to me. I just kind of do my thing. I do programs for Blues in the Schools and they ask me what’s my deepest fear, and it’s always being like somebody else!” she laughs, before offering a different take on her musical journey.

“You’re frustrated with the music business and I’ve made a bunch of albums all filled with blues and love and all kinds of stuff that you would think make people happy. But you know what? At some point you have to say what you really feel and think. And I love these records for that. They changed me.”

She hopes that 20 years down the line, these “little pieces of art” she’s made will fill her grown son with pride.

Most songs on Done Come Too Far are credited to the team of Will Kimbrough (who also plays guitar and produces) and John Hahn (executive producer). Though the ideas for them come out of “general conversation” with Copeland.
“We are so like-minded; we really are a dream team. I talk to John more than I care to admit to! I love it,” she says. “[The songs] are tailor made to me. It’s fantastic.”

As to why her band on record and her band on the road don’t share any players, she says it’s because Kimbrough likes working with familiar faces who are more “creatives,” but that her live band consists of “amazing musicians who can play anything.”

Shemekia Copeland and her band will be hitting the road soon to promote Done Come Too Far, and she’s eager to get across the new material to audiences both familiar with her previous work and new. Though her “driving force” is not the music, it’s that 5-year-old boy who’ll be starting school next week.

“We already got the school supplies and the book bag. It’s got Hot Wheels on it—he’s into cars!” Copeland laughs. ““I just need to keep my emotions together and not cry too much on the first day, so he doesn’t think ‘What the hell’s wrong with my mommy?’”

For more on Shemekia Copeland, visit ShemekiaCopeland.com
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero