Shemekia Copeland gets topical on her new record. Very topical.Photo by Mike White/Courtesy of Alligator Records
Sometimes in the practice of music journalism, even if your Friendly Neighborhood Scribe has scheduled and reconfirmed a date and time for an interview with a musician, sometimes they’re taken off-guard when they actually pick up the phone.
But it’s OK that the great blues singer Shemekia Copeland seems a little confused and hesitant at first. After all, she suffers from a debilitating medical condition.
“Oh, that’s right, you’re calling for the interview!” she says from her home. “Sorry. I suffer from CRS sometimes.”
“It stands for ‘Can’t Remember Shit!’” she laughs. “But I just stay close to the phone. Otherwise, something will go over my head!”
Copeland will hopefully remember to head toward the Houston area on January 28. That’s when she and her band will play the Bayou Theater at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, which will also serve as the kickoff for a tour.
It will mark her regular return to the stage, outside of a handful of gigs she did over the summer. The lengthy period not performing is not what the 42-year-old is used to after a recording and concert career that began in the late ‘90s when she was just a teenager.
“It was emotional, and it was very weird,” she says of stepping onstage again. “My first thing was a virtual show I did at Lincoln Center in New York, and it was odd because there was no audience. But it was so nice to be onstage again.”
Photo by Phillip Solomonson/Courtesy of Alligator Records
Not that she’s been bored over the pandemic. Copeland, her husband and their 5-year-old son moved to California in the summer of 2020. “I loved getting to spend that time with my boy. But now he’s used to his mama being at home!” she laughs. Copeland also hosts a daily blues show on SiriusXM radio that she records at her residence.
But a focus of this tour will probably be material from her last studio album. Released in October 2020, Uncivil War (Alligator) is Copeland’s most mature, deep and incisive release to date. Her ninth studio release is equal parts ripped from the headlines and historical dissection.
“This album is not political. It’s just me talking about things that are going on,” she says. The songs were completed at the end of 2019 and have only become more prescient since then.
“It’s relevant still. And it talks about things that didn’t even happen when we recorded them! But this record is needed right now. I’ve talked about current issues the past few records, and I realize it’s what I’m supposed to be doing.”
The songs are mostly written by Producer Will Kimbrough and Executive Producer John Hahn, along with contributions from others. And it’s a shot across the bow of American issues and problems, delivered with a volcanic voice.
That’s evident immediately with opener “Clotilda’s on Fire.” And while it starts as a possible traditional blues story of a destructive femme fatale, the Clotilda of the title is actually the name of the last known sailing vessel which carried African slaves to the United States, arriving at Alabama in July 1860 with approximately 110 human cargo aboard.
It was subsequently burned and sunk by its captain, William Foster, in an effort to escape charges of illegal slave importation levied against him and main financial backer Timothy Meaher. The case was dismissed for lack of evidence. In 2019, the Alabama Historical Commission announced that the ship’s wreckage had been found in a delta a few miles north of Mobile.
When told that this writer had never heard of the Clotilda—something a quick visit to Wikipedia corrected, Copeland grew excited. “That’s the best part! What you just said to me is what I live for!” she says. “Because as I educate myself, I want to [others]. I didn’t know about it either, but once I did, I wanted to get it out there. The descendants of those [slaves] still live off the coast of Alabama today.”
Uncivil War’s title track hits hard on political anger and disagreement, while “Walk Until I Ride” starts with a woman’s challenge on living in a “bad part of town” and links to the protest marches for social, civil and voting rights — both in the ‘60s and today.
“Instead of Americans picking a side, whether it’s Left or Right, we as Americans need to choose each other. And get rid of all of these politicians and tell them to go screw themselves. “They don’t have our best interests at heart,” Copeland says, her voice rising.
“We really do all want the same things. The politicians have health care and their kids go to private schools and they have millions in the bank. They’re masterful at putting things out there and having us fight over them. Silly and stupid things. And in the background, they do what they want to. We have to get off the Idiot Box and choose each other.”
Other subject covered include the ecology (“Money Makes You Ugly”), gun laws and real-life school and church shootings (the searing “Apple Pie and a .45”) and sexual identity (“She Don’t Wear Pink”). There’s also her tribute to the gris-gris man, Dr. John (“Dirty Saint”) and a Rolling Stones cover (“Under My Thumb”).
“I’m not anti-gun at all,” she says of “Apple Pie and a 45.” “I have my license and everything, and my husband grew up in the Midwest and owns a lot of [guns]. But in this country, the media throws out words like ‘gun control’ and it makes everybody nuts,” she says.
“The one thing we can all agree on is there is a problem in this country with mass shootings. When you can’t even go to church or school without fear of being shot, there’s a problem! Or Wal-Mart or a festival or anything! Of all the places you’re supposed to be safe, it’s church and school!”
She also addresses religious tolerance and acceptance in “Give God the Blues.” In it, she mentions that “God’s alright” with a wide variety of groups, name checking the world’s major religions, atheists, fools and whores. Adding a dash of humor, God even loves the “that karaoke singer just a-ruinin’ ‘Don’t Be Cruel.’”
Of course, while you would likely find her records filed under “blues,” Copeland has never been defined by the genre. Uncivil War certainly has the blues, but also soul, gospel, folk, R&B and even a little hard rock heard during its playing time.
In terms of blues lineage, Shemekia Copeland is the daughter of singer/guitarist Johnny “Clyde’ Copeland, one of Houston’s greatest musical exports. He died in 1997. The last track on Uncivil War is Shemekia’s cover of his “Love Song.”
“My dad was a proud, proud Texan. We buried him with his Texas [guitar] strap on,” she says. “I didn’t visit Texas for the first time until I was about 16, but I have lots of roots there and lots of family still there. I love it because he did.” She says that Houston is especially “fun” to visit, because she has sisters here. Plus, she can get really good barbecue.
Finally, with her on stage will be her usual band of Kevin Jenkins (bass), Arthur Neilson (guitar), Willie Scandlyn (rhythm guitar) and Robin Gould (drums). The quintet has a camaraderie that goes beyond music of the ears to, well, their stomachs.
“Those are my guys! They keep trying to get a new chick singer for the band, but they’re stuck with me! They say they can find someone who can sing and not cook or cook and not sing. But I can do both!” Copeland laughs.
“I haven’t cooked for them in a long time because I moved and the [pandemic]. They don’t have a favorite dish. But I can give them anything, and they’ll be happy with it!”
Shemekia Copeland plays 7:30 p.m. on Friday, January 28, at the Bayou Theater at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, 2700 Bay Area. For information, call 281-283-3024 or visit Uchl.edu/Bayou-Theater. $20-$250.
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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.