By Rick Koster — The Day
Published April 25 2016
There’s a wonderful essence to the blues — a purity of form and a recurrence of familiar themes that distill the sorrows and joys of the human condition. At the same time, within this essence can be a tendency for critics or casual fans — and, yes, often in the work of the artists themselves — to oversimplify and stereotype.
But for Shemekia Copeland — a 37-year-old second-generation singer with multiple Grammy and Blues Music Award nominations and a power-quake voice capable of nuancing every emotion — the blues are a complex and ever-evolving art form. Over the course of seven albums, including last year’s critically celebrated “Outskirts of Love,” Copeland has channeled personal experiences and the ongoing complexities of the world in a way that not only celebrates the blues but also pushes the genre into the future. And the topics she chooses to sing about cover a variety of heady subjects, from date rape and social injustice to morally bankrupt politicians and religious hypocrites.
“I don’t want to be just another artist who sings over and over that her man treated her bad. Living life gives you so much more material, and this can be such expressive music,” Copeland says by phone on a tour bus two weeks ago. She and her band are out in support of “Outskirts of Love” and play Thursday in the Oasis Room at New London’s Garde Arts Center. “The things I choose to speak and sing about, I do so purposefully because they’re important issues.”
Copeland is the daughter of Texas blues legend Johnny Copeland and started traveling and performing with her father while still in her mid-teens. Those times and lessons resonated in a lot of ways, particularly after her father passed away of heart disease at the age of 60.
“Musically, I loved to watch my dad onstage,” Copeland says. “He was so great, and he gave more than 100 percent every time he went out there. And there was originality with his passion and, of course, I learned from all of that.”
At the same time, though, Copeland says she assimilated even more wisdom from her dad offstage, and not in a “blues-tutelage” context.
“We never sat down and talked about what the blues meant, but we had so many great conversations,” she remembers. “What he did teach me was that, if I was going to choose to be in this business, anything that comes to me is a blessing. I’m not entitled to anything, and I shouldn’t expect it. The blessing comes in doing something I truly love. I was taught to be gracious and to look forward to meeting and talking to people who take the time to come out and support the music. I’m so grateful to have been raised in that way.”
One interesting aspect of Copeland’s work is that she doesn’t write songs. On each album, she typically includes one of her father’s songs, a few perhaps overlooked songs by classic blues artists, and contemporary selections that reflect her views on aforementioned societal aspects as well as tunes that reflect the ability of the blues to be a vehicle for exultation and fun.
“That’s one reason it takes me so long to put out records,” Copeland explains. “I put a lot of thought into the songs I want to record. I want to maybe introduce new fans to older musicians and, at the same time, present new material that addresses things that are important and that entertain.”
“Outskirts of Love,” released by the prestigious Alligator Records label, features insightful work from Copeland’s longtime songwriters, manager John Hahn and bandleader/producer Oliver Wood. The title track, “Cardboard Box,” and “Devil’s Hand” address complex issues, while “Driving Out of Nashville” has a lighter tone.
From the archives, Copeland selected a fiery and dizzying array of interpretations of work by various artists, including Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, ZZ Top, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Solomon Burke and Jesse Winchester. In particular, she was delighted to do ZZ Top’s “Jesus Just Left Chicago.” Billy Gibbons, the band’s songwriter and guitarist, guested on Copeland’s version in the studio.
“I’ve always loved that song and wanted to do it on a record,” Copeland says. “It’s not just a great song, though. Billy Gibbons was a good friend of my dad’s and was so nice to him when my father got sick. When he agreed to play on it for me, I was so honored that he would make the effort.”
Copeland is very happy to be back in the Northeast — an area she says is a region of educated and enthusiastic blues fans.
“Blues used to be associated mostly with the South and cities like Chicago,” she says. “But, oh my God, New England! Even when I was back with my dad, he had great fans from Connecticut all the way up to Maine, and it’s been that way for at least 30 years that I know about.
“I’ll tell you something. We were in Boston last night, and a young man came up to me and said he was 26 and that his parents had brought him to see me the first time when he was 11. Do you know what it means to me that folks have had their children grow up as blues fans? It’s become a generational thing. This music has been around forever — and it always will be.”