“I’m not like everybody else,” Shemekia Copeland announces rather unnecessarily on her latest, America’s Child. Copeland’s sound has always been unique, bold, and brassy, attitude coming off her in waves. Since her ’98 debut, Turn The Heat Up, the 39-year-old singer has blasted through six records, produced with Dr. John, Steve Cropper, and the Wood Brothers’ Oliver Wood. Will Kimbrough is the producer for number 8, her latest on Alligator.
All of her producers have played on her records, but none have affected her style and vision. “I’m so much a part of my record making process,” the singer said in a 2011 interview for North Carolina alt-weekly Indy Week. “Nobody hands me some songs and says ‘These are the ones you have to do.’ It doesn’t work that way — not with me. I choose all my songs, and I don’t do anything unless I want to.”
This time out, Copeland has changed up a bit for a more Americana format, utilizing some special guests to aid and alter her sound. Former Carolina Chocolate Drop Rhiannon Giddens drops in for some African banjo on “Smoked Ham and Peaches.” Emmylou Harris sings background on a couple of tunes, as does John Prine, also featured in a duet with Copeland on “Great Rain.” Legendary Shack Shakers wildman J.D. Wilkes contributes harp to a couple of tracks, and Steve Cropper lends lead guitar to a track.
But just as she professes, nobody can change Copeland much. On “Ain’t Got Time For Hate,” the content sounds like Mavis Staples, Kimbrough even capturing a taste of Pops’ guitar sound. But Copeland is still herself, powering through it with gospel fervor delivered with enough projection to reach the back rows or nosebleed seats anywhere she shows up. Copeland’s showpiece used to be daddy Johnny Clyde’s “Ghetto Child,” delivered largely off-mic as Copeland walked around the facility, her voice needing no amplification to reach out and touch every attendee. This one seems to be in contention to replace that, a rousing anthem Copeland can use to reach and rouse audiences for the remainder of her career.
“ We’re walking, talking contradictions,” Copeland contends on “Americans.” Backed by a relentless Bo Diddley beat with Paul Franklin’s pedal steel leaking in around the edges, it’s a celebration of diversity, inhabiting a tricky-to-navigate landscape populated by a plethora of vastly different individuals from a “slick-haired deplorable thinking he’s adorable” to a “Republican contrarian” to an“orthodox Baptist jew wonderin’ what would Jesus do” and including a “left-wing liberal geek married to a redneck freak.” But its not a condemnation of anybody’s lifestyle. It’s an affirmation of individualism: “No two are the same / that’s what makes us beautiful … still free … to be … you and me.”
Copeland’s message is powerful throughout, but “Would You Take My Blood” is the strongest statement she’s ever made against racism. “You’ve made it clear a thousand times / that you think I’m not your kind,” she tells a hater. But then she asks that if your life was at stake and you were fading fast, would you take her life-giving fluid, or “rather die than to share your life with mine, take my hand reaching out to you.”
John Prine steps in to duet with Copeland, reprising his composition “Great Rain,” co-written with former Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell, who also played on it, along with Petty, on Prine’s 1991 release, Missing Years. It’s Prine doing what he does best, making everyday life bearable as best he can by finding the humor in bad situations. “I tell you funny stories / Why can’t you treat me nice?” he asks his presumed beloved, or perhaps it’s just a temporary time-sharer. “I was praying for mercy / And all he ever sent me was you.”
It’s a first for Copeland to be mentioning Hank Williams in one of her songs, but he gets a shout-out on “Smoked Ham and Peaches,” Americana-ized with Giddens’ banjo clucking in the background. But Copeland’s magnificent voice, muted somewhat, still stays in churchy blues mode. “When the whole world seems fake / give me something real,” she asks, but it’s already here, and its her.
“Promised Myself,” with Cropper on lead, is vintage Copeland written by her daddy: deep-dish, hair-raising, soulful blues from the church of Shemekia. It’s healing blues, Copeland promising herself she’ll never fall in love again, but in the last chorus she admits to a relapse: “Looks like I lied to myself / Looks like true love is gonna always win … oh Lawd have mercy now,” she wails, but it makes the pain sound mighty fine.
If you had any doubts about her agenda, “I’m In The Blood of the Blues” takes care of that. “I’m the jewel in the crown of the mighty kings of Africa / I’m the hands on the shaft of the spear that slew the lion,” she proclaims, backing it with enough bombast to pin pack the ears of doubters.
Copeland transforms Ray Davies’ composition “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” from a jangly rocker to a soulful blues, Kimbrough backing her gospel shouts with slinky slide on a tune that should be her theme song.
Although its a bit of different direction, its still the same Shemekia Copeland, heart and soul intact, a proud spokesperson for all of us.