Photo: Shemekia Copeland @ 2012 Sierre Blues Festival | (c) Christophe Losberger.
The next show will air on August 5, 2018 from 11:00 PM – 1:00 AM Monday Eastern Standard Time on WBAI, 99.5 FM in the NYC metro area or streaming online at wbai.org. This broadcast features an interview with blues singer Shemekia Copeland.
The daughter of renowned Texas blues guitarist Johnny Copeland, award-winning blues singer Shemekia Copeland began making a splash in her own right before she was even out of her teens. Projecting a maturity beyond her years, Copeland fashioned herself as a powerful, soul-inflected shouter in the tradition of Koko Taylor and Etta James, yet also proved capable of a subtler range of emotions. Her 1998 Alligator debut, Turn the Heat Up!, featured a career-elevating version of her father’s classic “Ghetto Child,” that has been part of her performance repertoire ever since. She released three more acclaimed rough-and-rowdy recordings that decade before revealing a more nuanced, slow-burning persona on Never Going Back in 2009. By the time she gave birth to her first child in 2017 and released America’s Child a year later, she had transformed herself into a mature artist of vision and depth who could inhabit virtually any genre of music without sacrificing the power and passion that initially established her reputation.
Copeland was born in Harlem in 1979 and her father encouraged her to sing right from the beginning, even bringing her up on-stage at the Cotton Club when she was just eight. She began to pursue a singing career in earnest at age 16, when her father’s health began to decline due to heart disease; he took Shemekia on tour with him as his opening act, which helped establish her name on the blues circuit. She landed a record deal with Alligator, which issued her debut album, Turn the Heat Up!, in 1998 when she was just 19 years old (sadly, her father didn’t live to see the occasion).
While the influences on Copeland’s style were crystal clear, the record was met with enthusiastic reviews praising its energy and passion. Marked as a hot young newcomer to watch, Copeland toured the blues festival circuit in America and Europe, and landed a fair amount of publicity. Her second album, Wicked, was released in 2000 and featured a duet with one of her heroes, early R&B diva Ruth Brown. Wicked earned Copeland a slew of W.C. Handy Blues Award nominations and she walked off with three: Song of the Year, Blues Album of the Year, and Contemporary Female Artist of the Year. The follow-up record, Talking to Strangers, was produced by legendary pianist Dr. John and featured songs that she proudly claimed were her best yet. The Soul Truth, produced by Steve Cropper, was released by Alligator Records in 2005. Never Going Back followed in 2009 from Telarc Blues and was produced by the Wood Brothers’ Oliver Wood. 33 1/3 appeared in 2012 and was again produced by Wood and issued by Telarc. Copeland returned to Alligator for the release of 2015’s Outskirts of Love, which featured guest appearances from Robert Randolph, Alvin Youngblood Hart, and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. The album was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Blues album category. In 2017, Copeland gave birth to a son and the following year, deeply inspired by the experience, she shifted directions. She chose to record in Nashville and enlisted producer/guitarist Will Kimbrough — who in turn enlisted a guest list that included John Prine, Mary Gauthier, Emmylou Harris, Steve Cropper, and more. With guidance from Kimbrough, Copeland dug deep and completed a deeply resonant program of soul, Americana, blues, and country. America’s Child, the set was released on August 3, 2018.
This program is hosted, engineered, produced, and edited by Joyce Jones. Listen for our On the Bandstand segment with NYC metro area appearances of Suga’ guests at the end of the first hour with Associate Producer Hank Williams.
Shemekia Copeland will be at Iridium on August 18.
Watch Copeland sing “Ghetto Child” in this live clip.
Hank Williams is assistant producer for Suga’ in My Bowl and produces the weekly “On the Bandstand” segment as well as running the show’s website and blog, where he has reviewed several jazz festivals. His writing has also appeared in Left Turn magazine and American Music Review. He teaches at Lehman College in the City University of New York system.