Shemekia Copeland took command of the stage at the AMP by Strathmore recently as her band played the opening notes of the blues-rock anthem “Ain’t Got Time for Hate.” Co-written by ace songwriters John Hahn and Will Kimbrough (who also produced), the song leads off her latest album, the roots-infused America’s Child.
Recorded in Nashville, the album took top honors at the Blues Music Awards, and Shemekia got to work with Emmylou Harris, John Prine, and Rhiannon Giddens. Shemekia told the audience that having a baby boy “completely changed me,” saying that she felt like a beauty pageant contest: She wanted world peace.
In 1997, Shemekia’s father, blues musician Johnny Copeland, waited in the hospital for a heart transplant. Shemekia met another man in the hospital who wouldn’t take anything unless it came from someone just like him. If it meant saving her life, Shemekia said, she wouldn’t care if a donor were a “three-eyed monkey.” “Would You Take My Blood?” explored these issues at the show, which was filmed by PBS.
On Sept. 13 at AMP, Shemekia told the audience, “I don’t dance much, because I’m scared I might break something. But I do like to shake my booty.” Her next song got the crowd engaged, got them clapping, and got a call-and-response going, as they sang back to Shemekia, “say yeah.” She sang about a “great big pie in the sky,” and when she finished, she complimented the audience, “Y’all know how to party.”
At a party, Shemekia met two girls, 8 and 13 years old. The eight-year-old argued that Shemekia couldn’t be a blues singer, because blues singers are big and fat and that’s how they sing so well, and Shemekia’s a medium. Shemekia thanked the young lady, as she hadn’t been called a medium “since second grade.” Proving her blues bona fides, she sang “Married to the Blues.”
Shemekia did a country song on America’s Child, “The Wrong Idea.” One of the songwriters attended Friday night’s concert. The audience was clapping from the start on this one, and that was before Shemekia got a battle of the sexes going. The song is about someone getting “the wrong idea” about another person’s interest, and Shemekia addressed the ladies, saying that the men were trying to steal their song. She invited them to sing the chorus, which they did, enthusiastically. When the men’s turn came up, it was clear that the women had the energy with them.
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Shemekia had referenced working with John Prine earlier in the evening; she got to sing with him on his song, “Great Rain.” A member of her band filled in admirably for the legendary singer-songwriter, and Shemekia’s big, bold voice made the song epic.
John Hahn’s work came up again next, this time in conjunction with Best Folk Album Grammy Award nominee Mary Gauthier, on their celebration of downhome Southern life, “Smoked Ham and Peaches.” Performed live, Shemekia’s band stripped the song down; on the album, the track includes strings.
As a second-generation blues musician, Shemekia was strongly encouraged to add “In the Blood of the Blues” to her repertoire. Her father Johnny, a Texas blues guitarist and singer, won the Blues Entertainer of the Year award from the Blues Foundation in 1983. He played with Stevie Ray Vaughan in 1985 at the Montreux Jazz Festival. He was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2017, having passed away 20 years earlier at the age of 60.
In one of her songs, Shemekia declares, “Country ain’t nothing but blues with a twang.” Her connections to Americana run deep. She introduced her song, “I Ain’t Gonna Be Your Tattoo,” from her 2012 album 33 1/3, as being of deep personal significance. Who should’ve co-written this but Oliver Wood, of the lauded American roots band The Wood Brothers?
Shemekia shared a very cool story between songs. In 2008, she got a call from the White House to perform. Also there were B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Susan Tedeschi, Jeff Beck and Keb’ Mo’. On top of all that talent, Mick Jagger showed up, and he asked Shemekia to sing backing vocals for him. She joked that she told Mick, “I ain’t no background singer.” Shemekia of course backed up one of the greatest rock stars in the world.
Throwing in a little variety, the stage cleared except for Shemekia and her guitarist. They played “Beat Up Old Guitar,” and just the two of them, with the audience clapping for rhythm, created a big, full sound.
Shemekia’s Grandma Jessie, she told the audience, was a saved woman. She joked that Grandma Jessie “went to church 28 days a week.” With the full band back and a tambourine in hand, Shemekia brought some Southern gospel to Montgomery County. The audience took her voice booming “stand up and praise” as a command to rise to their feet. When she finished the song, Shemekia threw the tambourine. She said that she can’t smash or set a guitar on fire, but she can throw that tambourine.
Shemekia closed her set with her father’s song “Ghetto Child.” Johnny recorded this song in the ’50s, and Shemekia recorded it in the ’90s, on her first album, Turn the Heat Up!. The song has lost none of its power. Shemekia stepped away from the mic, belting totally acoustic. Then she left the stage, moving the crowd, singing. It was a gripping moment from a powerful singer with a phenomenal voice.
A standing ovation and thunderous applause brought Shemekia brought back for an encore of “It’s 2 A.M. – Do you Know Where Your Baby Is?” The concert ended, having thrilled the audience with Shemekia’s astounding vocal talents and skill as an interpreter of song. She and her band put on a tour de force in how, with sparse presentation, the power and beauty of American roots music — blues, Americana, country — can come to the fore and thrill an audience. Shemekia puts on an absolutely must-see show for any music lover.