“She has assembled a hugely talented, genre-crossing guest list”
The birth of her son, Johnny Lee Copeland, led Shemekia Copeland to take a fresh look at the world he would grow up in. Never one to shy away from telling it like it is, she has assembled a hugely talented, genre-crossing guest list led by Americana producer/instrumentalist Will Kimbrough, who plays guitar throughout. He was a guest on her last album, Outskirts Of Town.
The most important topic comes first: “Ain’t Got Time For Hate”, it’s the first single as well. Written for her by longtime executive producer John Hahn with Kimbrough, it’s in the hard-driving rocking blues style we’ve come to associate with her. It’s played, though, by some musicians we are not accustomed to hearing: pedal steel player Al Perkins, Kimbrough, harmonicist J.D. Wilkes along with regular bassist Lex Price and drummer Pete Abbott. They play this style very well indeed. On a few songs, they play closer to home, part of Shemekia’s aim to get as many people as possible to hear her message.
“Americans” doesn’t stray too far, though, written by folk legend Mary Gauthier with Hahn, she also joins in on background vocals along with another legend, Emmylou Harris and Katie Pruitt. Set to an attractive melody, this one lists all the various kinds of people who call themselves American with more rhymes than one can count.
“Would You Take My Blood?” is far more blunt, confronting the question of race head on, a fine slow blues written by Hahn & Kimbrough.
A most surprising choice as guest was John Prine, who duets with Shemekia on his bluesy “Great Rain”. Its inclusion here crosses categories and labels brilliantly. Kimbrough’s electric guitar arrangement turns this into a magnificent and memorable trio performance.
“Smoked Ham & Peaches” is another co-write from Gauthier & Hahn, ‘a search for truth and tranquility’. With Kimbrough on National steel and Rhiannon Giddens on African banjo, this one also achieves her goal most successfully.
Back to band blues with a stone rocker called “The Wrong Idea”, dealing with gender equality this time, putting down predators in bars with some wicked barbs. A fiddle solo by Kenny Sears gives it a different sound but Kimbrough’s guitar carries the weight.
“Promised Myself” gives us some Stax ballad stylings, with none other than Steve Cropper adding authenticity. The song, though, was written by Shemekia’s father, Johnny Clyde Copeland, she has included one of his songs on her albums for some time now.
That acknowledgement extends to pride in her heritage: “In The Blood Of The Blues” is an anthemic blues rocker that extends her blues family back through the history of all African Americans. Kimbrough’s guitar nails it here too.
A further example of her interpretive ability shows in her blues adaptation of a Kinks song: “I’m Not Like Everybody Else”, whose subject matter fits right in with this program.
A gorgeous, almost a capella version of “Go To Sleep Little Baby” for her son concludes.
This is an ambitious album, and it’s clear that these guest stars are contributing because they want to, almost all of them sing the chorus on the opening “Ain’t Got Time For Hate”. We should all wish her the greatest success.
Shemekia is to my mind the finest blues vocalist working today – the torch was passed to her from Koko Taylor and she continues to carry it high. She was on this side of the border for the Festival International du Blues de Tremblant last month but www.shemekiacopeland.com shows no closeby dates upcoming – you’ll just have to acquire the album, you won’t be disappointed.
In John’s Blues Picks, published by the Toronto Blues Society.