THE VOICE OF POWER
SHEMEKIA COPELAND © MIKE WHITE / ALLIGATOR RECORDS
B Y C O R Y F R Y E
from her confident debut at age 19 on Turn the Heat Up! (its opening track still leaves marks — and that "Ghetto Child" cover? Lord!) to her latest album, Uncivil War (Alligator Records, 2020), which sheds a hot light on one of America’s most shamefully buried chapters.
“Clotilda’s on Fire” acknowledges the 1860 denouement of our last known slave ship. Transporting humanity for such purposes was illegal by then, so the Clotilda’s crew camouflaged the vessel’s true intent as a lumber delivery to the Virgin Islands. Instead, it sojourned in Africa and returned with 110 slaves to Twelve Mile Island along the Alabama River. There, Captain William Foster covertly loaded these souls onto a riverboat and destroyed the emptied Clotilda by fire, sinking its carcass and effectively denying history for the next 159 years, despite the emergence of the Alabama community Africatown, founded by roughly 30 Clotilda "passengers” smuggled into nearby Mobile.
The ship’s remains were finally discovered and authenticated in 2019. Its memory stands as a tragic metaphor of our own American condition, our hubris and revisionism, and the lasting damage inflicted by age-old institutions. The song — that’s Jason Isbell aching, pleading, moaning on guitar — moves just as urgently and is just as damning, a reproachment too strong to be silenced, on a lacerating album already rich with musical and cultural firepower. (Uncivil War also boasts turns from legendary Stax slinger Steve Cropper and pyrotechnic Alligator prodigy Christone “Kingfish” Ingram.)
“I had heard about the Clotilda when she was found off the coast of Alabama,” Copeland said in a recent telephone interview. “I just thought it was a story everyone needed to know, because slavery in this country has kind-of been swept under the rug. They just want everyone to forget about it and act like it never existed. This really puts it out there in front of everyone, and I loved that because people need to know their history.”
Uncivil War finds the daughter of late Texas-blues giant Johnny Copeland (Bringin’ It All Back Home, Ain’t Nothin’ But a Party, and Showdown! with Robert Cray and Albert Collins are career-twilight must-owns) adhering to one of her father’s greatest lessons: Always be original. At turns defiantly empowering (“She Don’t Wear Pink” and the sanctified “Walk Until I Ride”), lamenting (“Uncivil War,” “Give God the Blues,” “In the Dark”), scorching-hot angry (“Money Makes You Ugly,” the violently absurd tableau “Apple Pie and a .45”), Copeland applies a modern sensibility and social intelligence to an at-times stultified traditional American form.
Copeland's calling from California, where she, her husband, Brian Schultz, and 4-year-old son, Johnny Lee Copeland-Schultz (the inspiration for 2018's riveting America's Child) recently moved from Chicago’s Beverly neighborhood. Such life-altering events came courtesy of the pandemic; Wright had taken a job out west. Naturally, the coronavirus also brought the biggest change for any touring artist: a largely free itinerary. Two months into 2021 and Copeland’s played only one gig to date: a Jan. 14 album debut at New York’s Lincoln Center.
Luckily for us, we get Gig No. 2: an American Strings webcast at 5 p.m. Wednesday, Feb.17, hosted by Oregon State University Director of Popular Music and Performing Atts, Bob Santelli. The popular series features performances, illuminating career overviews, and creative discussions. Copeland will be accompanied musically by longtime guitarists Arthur Nielson, who’s stood beside Copeland since the beginning of her professional career, and Ken “Willie” Scandlyn. (“I’ve known him forever,” Copeland laughed.) Register for the free event at https://beav.es/Jdz.
Copeland spent a recent morning with Mid Valley Noise to reflect on her career and wonder where a lost America goes from here.
I was absolutely stunned to read that you’d performed at the Cotton Club before you were 10 years old. What was it like to be on stage at such an historically pivotal venue, and how do you reflect on it now?
I didn’t realize it was historic until I got older. (laughs) Now when I think about it, it makes me very proud that I was there. That all happened because of my dad. He performed there. He was a great blues musician. I got a chance to perform there mostly because of him. And it was right around the corner from where we lived.
You’ve been recording professionally on your own since the age of 19 with Turn the Heat Up! In 1998. From the vantage point of 20-plus years, how do you see that Shemekia Copeland?
I’ve learned a whole lot. (laughs) I feel like I’m getting more youthful. When I was younger, I didn’t have a whole lot of fun because I was always too worried about everything. I wasn’t secure in myself. Everything is so much better now with a little age on you. I’ve been in this business over 20 years. The more confident I get in accepting myself, I have that much more fun. So I’m really enjoying myself now.
In your younger years, you worked with the greatest R&B belter of the last century, Ruth Brown. What was that like?
Oh, my God. First of all, to me, Ruth Brown was everything. She was the ultimate artist. Huge voice, amazing entertainer. For me, once again, she took me under her wing and literally gave me the clothes off her back when my father died. I had gotten nominated for my first Blues Music Award , and I was going to the ceremony. I had nothing. I was broke. I had no money, nothing. She gave me clothes to wear. I wore her clothes to my first Blues Music Awards. That just tells you the kind of woman she was. I miss her.
But being in the studio was very difficult with her. We recorded a song together called “If He Moves His Lips.” I was struggling to do my part because I was so busy (laughs) watching and paying attention to her. She was just so great.
How did you hook up with [producer/guitarist] Will Kimbrough?
Will Kimbrough and [songwriter/manager] John Hahn are just a dream team. It’s a beautiful experience working with these guys. I did three records with Oliver Wood, who was also an amazing producer. I learned a whole lot from him. We did the last one in Nashville, the last one that Oliver produced.[Outskirts of Love, 2015] .What happened was that he called in Will Kimbrough, who I was a big fan of, to do some guitar work. We just hit it off. When we prepared to do another record, we asked Will if he would be interested in producing it. Here we are, two records later. (laughs)
Oh, man. Dr. John was just a unique man altogether. He was really good friends with my dad, so when my dad passed on, he was good and kind to me. So when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my “do-next,” we asked him to produce a record on me. He said, “Sure.” We spent so much time together on that record, and we had so much fun. When he passed [in 2019], I was just devastated. It wasn’t just about the record. It was everything he did, because he did some amazing things for me. Because of him I was able to open for The Rolling Stones and all sorts of awesome things. He took me under his wing and loved me.
I’ve been a big fan of The Rolling Stones for a very long time. It was one of the first rock ’n’ roll bands that I knew of. Growing up, I listened to blues music. (laughs) So I fell in love with the Stones because they sounded like blues. (laughs)
The album concludes with a take on your father’s zydeco-flavored “Love Song.”
With all the more serious songs on this record, I wanted to end on a lighter note. My dad had so many great songs I could choose from. That one — every time I hear it, it makes me smile. That’s how I wanted to end the record.
I think “Give God the Blues” is one of the album’s strongest statements, discussing how our maker loves us, though we endlessly test that love and patience by getting so wrapped up in believing we’re right.
I always felt that God has one hell of a sense of humor, He’s like, “Come on, people. What is wrong with you? Love each other and stop the BS.”
Your America’s Child and Uncivil War albums express frustration and dismay at the country in its current state. Where do you think we’ve gone since?
For America’s Child, I did a song called “Ain’t Got Time for Hate.” Oh, my God. After that, it seemed like that was all we had in this country. So much divisiveness and so much hate. So much lack of understanding, lack of communication. It’s so disappointing. That’s why I did Uncivil War.
The argument that really bothers me is that some of us belong here and others don’t. This entire country is made up of immigrants. So, if you’re here, chances are your family came here, just like everyone else. What really bothers me about being African American in this country is that we came here unwillingly. Go back to Africa? It wasn’t our choice to come here. That’s annoying to me too. We are all immigrants, and we are supposed to be the absolute best. So all this hate and divisiveness just makes absolutely no sense to me. It’s really disheartening.
Where do I think we’re going? Lord knows. I have no idea. I honestly feel that the next few days will tell. If there’s no accountability, things will get much, much worse in this country. That scares me, and it makes me scared for myself, my child, and my family. That’s going to be a big deal here over the next few days or weeks.
Special thanks to Erin Sneller (Oregon State University) and John Hahn.
Shemekia Copeland’s always known how to make an entrance,
CHECK IT OUT
WHAT: "An Evening with Shemekia Copeland"
PRESENTED BY Oregon State University's "American Strings" series, hosted by Bob Santelli
WHEN: 5 p.m. Wednesday, February 17
WHERE: Zoom (webcast)
COST: Free, but registration is necessary