Shemekia Copeland – Uncivil War
12 Tracks – 46 minutes
For the tenth release of her compelling career, the eighth for Alligator Records, Shemekia Copeland once again unleashes her riveting voice to call attention to the woes plaguing modern society as well as issues of the heart. With noted producer Will Kimbrough’s guidance, in addition to his first-rate guitar work, Copeland commands your attention at every turn. Even the contributions of a number of top-flight guest artists fail to relegate her out of the spotlight for very long.
Listeners get a history lesson on “Clotilda’s On Fire,” a deeply moving hymn about the last slave ship to arrive in our country. The snarling guitar interplay between Kimbrough and guest Jason Isbell adds layers of emotions to the singer’s recitation of a journey made in chains and despair. “Walk Until I Ride” is sparked by the cries from Jerry Douglas on the lap steel guitar. Copeland proudly delivers a message of strength, unwilling to bow before the forces that fail to treat people as equals, finishing off with a burst of gospel intensity.
The title track is a quieter number that ponders the wide divisions and acrimonious conversations that have become the norm in our country. Copeland’s pleas for understanding are framed by Sam Bush on mandolin and Douglas on dobro, his regular instrument of choice. Kimbrough rips it up on “Apple Pie And A .45,” pulling a steady stream of ferocious licks out of his guitar, while Copeland offers a searing depiction of the American gun culture. On “No Heart At All,” she has finally had enough of a man stuck in the midst of an emotional wasteland, offering nothing in spite of her best efforts to raise a spark.
Taking us to church one more time on “Give God The Blues”, the singer reminds those who profess to believe, that God loves all beings, that “God ain’t no Republican, he ain’t no Democrat, he ain’t even independent. God’s above all that,” and he even loves karaoke singers. The rhythm section of Lex Price on bass and Pete Abbott on drums are rock solid through the album, especially on the good time rocker “She Don’t Wear Pink,” featuring the legendary Duane Eddy and Webb Wider on guitar. Lisa Oliver-Gray and Janelle Means join in on backing vocals, a role they handle on several other tracks.
One of the rising stars of blues music, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, gets to showcase his prodigious guitar skills while Copeland takes on mankind’s rape of the natural world on “Money Makes You Ugly,” making it clear that the bill is coming due real soon, and it won’t be pretty. “Dirty Saint” is Copeland’s upbeat, second-line tribute to Dr.John, who had been her friend and supporter since childhood. Phil Madeira fills out the arrangement with some fine organ playing.
The three covers are also standout tracks. The stripped down take of the Rolling Stones hit “Under My Thumb” showcases Copeland’s ability to dig deep into the emotions expressed in the lyrics while making it clear that the roles have definitely been reversed. Junior Parker’s slow blues classic, “In The Dark,” is even more indicative of Copeland’s abilities, her meticulous phrasing and mournful cries articulating the searing heartache caused by an unfaithful lover. Even Steve Cropper’s beautifully constructed six string solo pales in comparison to Copeland’s devastating performance.
As she does on every album, the singer includes a song written by her father, Johnny Copeland. This time she closes the album with “Love Song,” setting aside all of the hurts and social injustice for a few minutes of feeling good, expressing her devotion to the blues with Kimbrough, Price, and Abbott providing one final dose of outstanding accompaniment.
Labels are often tossed around right and left. Everybody is a star, or a legend in-the-making. Mostly it is all part of marketing campaign that overstates reality. Some years ago, Shemekia Copeland was crowned the Queen of the Blues by Koko Taylor’s daughter. While that label may have been unfair and a bit premature in that moment, the singer has continued to hone her talent while adopting a fearless attitude about the music. She does what the best blues artists have always done – sing about the realities of their life, the people they encounter, and how it all plays out in the wider world. A work of true inspiration, this is a must-hear album.
(Shemekia Copland has received five 2021 Blues Music Award nominations, including Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Contemporary Blues Album, Contemporary Blues Female Artist, and B.B. King Entertainer award.)