Swampy hardcore electric blues from Nashville, with added flavours of gospel, soul and zydeco, from 2nd generation blues royalty; Shemekia Copeland.
Release date: 19th August 2022
Format: CD / Vinyl / Digital
You know the name, maybe can’t place her, is that it? Extraordinarily, given she is, arguably, the Queen of the Blues. Actually, no argument, she is the Queen of the Blues, Koko Taylor said so, in 2016, as she passed on her crown, and if you don’t know her, well, you ain’t listening to enough of the blues. Or, at least the real stuff. The daughter of Texas guitar-slinger, johnny Copeland, she has been treading the boards since about age 10, her debut, in 1998, aged 18, alerting the world to her authentic presence. This is her 11th long player, and forms the final part of a loose trilogy with 2018’s America’s Child and 2020’s Uncivil War. Those titles alone might hint she is far from shy in tackling some of the social injustices in this world. With a stack of blues awards mounting up behind her, she takes a broad view of the idiom, unafraid to draw in gospel, soul, rock and even country hues; this record was produced by Will Kimbrough in Nashville and features appearances from cross-genre giants such as Sonny Landreth, Cedric Burnside and Charles Hodges, alongside Kimbrough’s regular in-house team.
It kicks off with a belter, the Texas style Too Far To Be Gone, a righteous tirade about not giving up, having come this far, speaking for the Black Civil Rights movement as much as for herself. It positively reeks of early Z.Z. Top, with Sonny Landreth’s slide a searing constant, a fiery solo nailing the mood of the piece to the mast. Her voice is a strong and strident, making neither excuse or apology, a clear clarion call of intent. Pink Turns To Red addresses school shootings and gun licence, and is another 4 to the floor blues-rock juggernaut, howling twin guitars jousting with her vocal urgency. Powerful stuff, right enough, with The Talk then a slower tread, shimmering guitar and glowering keyboard, the latter provided by Hodges, that veteran of Al Green’s classic band. It is Kimbrough’s guitar here, showing he has an effortless a grasp on the blues as he does on with country, as part of Emmylou Harris’s touring band. A tremendous tour de force, this might be as powerful as anything you’ll hear this year. And catch, too, the lyrics, a prompt to every young black man out there.
Gullah Geechee is then a throwback to a worksong, the chants of the chained, the origin of the blues, slaves in the fields, with African gourd banjo the main instrument, a hymnal spiritual song that captures the chilling realities of that life. Why Why Why follows, a wracked soulful plea of a song, the choral vocals in the background now more the chapel than the chaingang. The first song written other than the writing partnership of John Hahn and Kimbrough, being by Susan Werner, her own version being more straight ahead country. Here it is simply beautiful, Copeland’s vocal mellower and beseeching. Fried Catfish And Bibles isn’t. Perhaps added as a palate cleanser, after the heavier content before, perhaps to showcase the versatility of the band and principal artist, it is fine as a cajun romp, and the playing is competently of that ilk, fiddles, washboard and accordion, but it sticks out a bit against the material thus far. Cedric Watson, a prominent young zydeco player provides the fiddle and I wonder if he too cringed a bit.
Done Come Too Far features Cedric Burnside and is a swampy bottleneck warning, a semi-acoustic reiteration of the opener. Providing a wonderful contrast to that opener, it add extra weight to the impact given by that opening track. Burnside adds duet vocals that contrast well with Copeland, to give a compelling duologue. Another showstopper. In both songs she sings: “If you think we’re stopping, you got it wrong.” This time you know she means it. Barefoot In Heaven is the Ray Wylie Hubbard song through a bluesier filter than the original, adding nor subtracting anything by that, a relatively slight song. It is, however, becomes positively epic against a second misstep, the extraordinary I Fell In Love With A Honky. Does anyone even say that word any more, in this country it reeking to me of 70’s sitcoms? Be that as it may, this is a “humorous” take on how a cross-racial relationship can have reason to celebrate the cultural differences. Given Copeland is in such a relationship, she is quick to assert her distance from anything autobiographical in this song; her husband prefers heavy metal! The steel, for those that like to know, is by Fats Kaplan, with extra guitar from Aaron Lee Tasjan.
Moving on, The Dolls Are Sleeping is anything but light-hearted. Over clipped acoustic guitar, Copeland intones a ghostly, ghastly tale of either rape or child-abuse, both really. Hahn is again responsible for this song, with, this time, Oliver Wood, of the Woods Brothers, who also provides that guitar, wondering quite how two men could occupy so convincing a lyric. So believable is Copeland in this portrayal that I had to do a quick wiki to check she had no such skeleton in her own closet. (To my knowledge, not.) Dumb It Down changes tack once again, a choogly blues, Hodges back on the hammond, and it is a message to all aspiring female stars as to how to make it big(ger) in showbiz. Not unpleasant, if I find myself getting a little mystified how this white, male songwriting team should be writing words for the mouth of this sassy and outspoken black singer. (Looking back, and I had never realised before, it is something that clearly works for Copeland, with , in various combinations, Kimbrough, Hahn and Wood responsible for the bulk of songwriting on her last few recordings. And maybe I miss the point, it being maybe churlish to point out and wonder such things?)
The last track was not written by these guys, it was written by Copeland’s Daddy, she making a point of including one of his songs on each of her releases. Nobody But You is a glorious Chicago stomp in the style of Muddy Waters, and is tackled with neither frills or fuss. Indeed, it might, for all that, be my favourite track of this largely excellent album. The rhythm section of Lex Price and Peter Abbott, on board and exemplary throughout, give a convincing bluster to the song, Kimbrough again all blazing cinders on yet more blistering guitar. A magnificent ending.
Here’s the opener, with Sonny Landreth peeling off fiery harp-like slide guitar licks over Copeland’s holler.