When Shemekia Copeland recorded her first album, “Turn the Heat Up” in 1998, she was just 18, and it was clear that her powerful vocals would make her a force to be reckoned with in the blues world.
Since then, she has established herself firmly atop the ranks of contemporary blues singers, and she has indeed become that force across multiple genres.
Now, with “Uncivil War,” her tenth album, due out Oct. 23, Copeland has taken a step beyond her blues boundaries, to make her music sing of social and political upheaval.
The album’s centerpoint and opening track is “Clotilda’s On Fire,’ a fierce and historic blues, telling the story of the slave ship Clotilda, the last one to come to America, delivering its human cargo in 1859. It was 50 years after the slave trade was banned, but illegally continued. The ship was burned and sunk in Mobile Bay, Ala., and the wreck discovered in May, 2019.
Copeland’s telling of the story in song is passionate and powerful. Intense guitar work by Jason Isbell adds its own stinging dimension. It’s a moving experience.
That song is quickly followed by “Walk Until I Ride,” a gospel-like anthem of social protest, and then the title track, asking “why can’t we all just get along”?
The rest of the songs unfold in a variety of styles and contexts, all fueled by Copeland’s blues roots, and may with a point to make. The uptempo “Money Makes You Ugly” is one of those, with the point right there in the title.
“Apple Pie and a .45” shoots out its own anti-gun message, and “She Don’t Wear Pink” rocks with gender equality.
And there are a few just-plain-musical messages, including “Dirty Saint, a tribute to her friend and “Talking to Strangers” album producer Dr. John (Mac Rebennack). Her take on the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb” is a tough musical role reversal, with the guy under her thumb. “No Heart At All” tackles a more traditional blues theme seen through Copeland’s eyes.
On “Give God the Blues,” the idea that “we all give God the blues” adds another look at how we just might be messing up our own lives.
And in a perfect final cut, Copeland sings the gorgeous blues ballad “Love Song,” written by her late father, bluesman Johnny Clyde Copeland. Producer Will Kimbrough aces the guitar solo.
The production values here help take this album to a new level. Kimbrough, plays guitar and wrote or co-wrote six of the twelve tracks. You can also listen for guests, the already mentioned Jason Isbell, legend Steve Cropper, the very up-and-coming guitarist Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, rocker Webb Wilder, the great Duane Eddy, Sam Bush on mandolin, dobro master Jerry Douglason dobro.and The Orphan Brigade providing background vocals.
This is a great album, filled with Copeland’s strong vocals, excellent musical craftsmanship, and a social conscience. Ultimately, it’s a plea for peace, love and hope.
Here’s a video of the title track, “Uncivil War.”