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CD REVIEW -- Shemekia Copeland
GLT blues radio


America's Child

Alligator Records

12 songs/49:20

Shemekia Copeland America's Child CD

By Greg Easterling

Shemekia Copeland's new album, America's Child is a musical journey from Chicago to Nashville, the home of the Blues to Music City U.S.A. with Shemekia as our sweet singing tour guide. And while her latest Alligator Records release has zoomed to the top of the Blues records charts, this latest sonic brew includes equal parts Americana and roots rock. Veteran producer and award winning AMA instrumentalist Will Kimbrough colors Shemekia's musical palate with pedal steel, fiddle, banjo and national guitar blended with a traditional blues music setup. Recording in Nashville also results in special studio guests including iconic artists John Prine and Emmylou Harris, rising star Rhiannon Giddens, first call steel guitar players Al Perkins and Paul Franklin as well as lesser known Americana artists Gretchen Peters, Tommy Womack and Mary Gauthier.


In another time perhaps, Shemekia's star would have shone brighter with the benefit of commercial radio airplay, traditional album sales and a Billboard chart that would actually reflect those. Today, all past measurements of success are greatly diminished as the ways we get our music have changed. TV shows like American Idol, self-posted videos on YouTube, downloads and streaming for free or bargain rates have made it a different landscape. Shemekia built her career the old fashioned way on the road and in the studio, touring with her father, the respected bluesman Johnny Clyde Copeland which led to a recording contract at the age of 18 with Alligator, one of the major indie providers of blues music to the world. As many have noted, Shemekia has one of the great voices of our time, a quality which should have her name mentioned in the same conversation with the past greats of pop, blues and jazz.


America's Child is Shemekia's second album back with Alligator for whom she has recorded six original albums. It's the follow up to her 2015 Grammy nominated release, Outskirts of Love which sparked a variety of awards from Living Blues Magazine and the Blues Music Association (BMA). Her new recording builds on that success while defying the limitations of labels, pushing the envelope in much the same manner as fellow Chicagoan and music legend Mavis Staples.


The new album leads off with “Ain't Got Time For Hate,” a strong statement both musically and socially at a time when such sentiments seem to be in short supply. Shemekia's manager and songwriter John Hahn and producer Kimbrough co-wrote this one for her; an important message delivered over ominous but compelling blues rock. Shemekia gets to address her child here who was born since the last record, singing, “Where's your wings little angel/my sweet baby child/and how you gonna live in a world gone wild/You better be smart/You better be strong/Ain't gonna be here long/This whole life is an uphill climb.”  Steel guitarist Paul Franklin, a musical associate of Vince Gill, takes a noteworthy solo here. He's no stranger to crossover efforts, having toured and recorded with Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits.


Next, Shemekia finds a New Orleans inspired second line rhythm to address the subject of diversity in “Americans”, co-written by Hahn and Mary Gauthier. If that sounds like a boring term paper topic, don’t worry it's not; the lyrics poke fun at racial and sex stereotypes: “A left wing liberal geek married to a redneck freak”. It's a celebration of “immigrants hoping to be residents” concluding in the chorus that we are “free to be you and me”. Gauthier is of special interest here as an award winning artist in her own right whose songs have been recorded by Jimmy Buffett, Blake Shelton, Tim McGraw and Bettye Lavette.


It gets more personal with the album's third cut, “Would You Take My Blood.” Shemekia's vocal reflects the desperation of a last shot at love. The title of the song is part of the plea. “Would you take my blood or would you rather die than share your life with me.” Some great bluesy guitar from Kimbrough is an effective instrumental counterpart to Shemekia's impassioned vocal. There's nothing subtle about the words here as love is also viewed as possible redemption for the ills of society.


Shemekia's biggest guest collaboration on America's Child is Chicago bred legend John Prine. He takes a vocal turn here on her cover of “Great Rain,” a Missing Years song that John co-wrote with Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers' guitarist Mike Campbell (now with Fleetwood Mac). This meeting of two Chicago music stars from different eras is a special moment as Prine's generation passes the torch to another.


A most delectable treat follows with another Hahn-Gauthier song, “Smoked Ham and Peaches”. It's comfort food for the ears as Shemekia finds release for the modern world in “smoked ham and peaches, sun tea with lemon peel” opining “when the whole world seems false, give me something real.” Rhiannon Giddens adds the right down home musical touch on banjo.


“The Wrong Idea” is a boot kickin’ shuffle inspired by honky tonk songs -- a kiss-off delivered by Shemekia with humor. She sings, “You've got the wrong idea/You're not the reason that I came here/Be a good boy and go back to your beer”. Kenny Sears stars on fiddle with Kimbrough adding his special touch on guitar.


“Promised Myself” is special and part of an ongoing tribute from Shemekia to her departed father Johnny Clyde. It's become a regular feature of her albums and at 5:30, the album's longest track. “I promised myself that I'd never fall in love again” but with every record Shemekia's love for her father and his music maintains. One of Johnny's best-selling albums was the award winning Showdown album, recorded for Alligator with fellow guests Albert Collins and Robert Cray. The legendary Steve Cropper plays lead guitar here.


Two Chicagoans are responsible for writing Shemekia's next track, “In The Blood Of The Blues.” Terry Abrahamson and Derrick Procell collaborated on this powerful song as well as other gems recorded by Big Bill Morganfield, the late Eddy Clearwater and Derrick's solo recordings. Terry also wrote “Bus Driver” recorded by Muddy Waters for his 1977 Blue Sky Grammy-winning album Hard Again.  Shemekia delivers some of the album's most intense words here: “I'm the twist in the wire tying every bale of cotton/I'm the shout in the field that echoes across the sea/I'm the newsprint walls in a one-room shack in Stovall/And the blade on the knife that cut my brother from the tree.”


The flip sides of love are represented on the next two tracks, “Such A Pretty Flame” and “One I Love”. The former views arson as a metaphor for lost love with complementary guitar fireworks by Kimbrough and Al Perkins. The latter is a bluesy declaration of everlasting love with a nice harp solo from J.D. Wilkes.


The next song comes as a surprise, Shemekia's effective cover of the Kinks' “I'm Not Like Everybody Else”, an early songwriting effort of Ray Davies. She takes a song of individual alienation and turns it into an anthem for those who are different in society. And as a new mother, Shemekia makes the album's final track a fitting way to go, the traditional lullaby , “Go To Sleepy Little Baby,” a precious piece of Americana once heard in the film, O Brother Where Art Thou.


Shemekia went to the musical crossroads of Nashville instead of Mississippi, not to sell her soul but for the exchange of musical ideas with talented musicians from the fields of country, roots rock and Americana. Media outlets as wide ranging as the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, CNN,  NPR, No Depression, Living Blues, and Mojo have acclaimed her as one of our best contemporary singers regardless of genre. It's time for a breakthrough befitting of Shemekia's immense talent and America's Child is another opportunity for that level of recognition.

Greg Easterling holds down the 12 midnight – 5 a.m. shift on WDRV (97.1 FM) He also hosts American Backroads on WDCB (90.9 FM) Thursdays at 9 p.m.


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