She’s a second-generation blues artist with a lot to say.
In August, Shemekia Copeland released America’s Child, her ninth album. Her 22-month-old son, Johnny Lee Copeland-Schultz, inspired the topical collection of songs. An all-star group of guests—including John Prine, Rhiannon Giddens, Mary Gauthier, Emmylou Harris and Steve Cropper—complements Copeland’s straight-to-the-point America’s Child performances.
This year is the 20th anniversary year of Copeland’s debut album, Turn the Heat Up. Released when she was 18, the album shadowed the singer’s decision to follow her father, Johnny “Clyde” Copeland, into the music business. Since then, she’s earned a flood of Blues Music Awards and Living Blues Awards and three Grammy nominations.
Copeland’s other honors include her 2012 participation with Buddy Guy, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, B.B. King, Mick Jagger, Jeff Beck, Gary Clark Jr. and more in In Performance at the White House: Red, White and Blues. She spoke to OffBeat in advance of her October 13 show at the Crescent City Blues & BBQ Festival.
Oh, my God. I know. People keep telling me that. I don’t want to hear it. The past 20 years are a complete blur. Seriously, where did the time go?
How do you feel about how far you’ve come in 20 years?
I grew up in this business. I’ve evolved and changed so much. And I’ve been able to do that on record. Not too many people can say that.
You were 18 when you released Turn the Heat Up. What were your early years of touring and being a young blues artist like?
It was tough times. I lost my father in 1997 and that was really tough. I was going through that when I was about to enter into this business with all of these grown men. But I had a good team around me. Without that you can get swallowed up and chewed up. But it was still tough. I was on the road all the time. Sometimes I wonder why my little body hurts now, and then I remember all my years of traveling and sleeping on top of luggage.
The music business has changed so much since 1998.
There was no way then to know that there would be no record stores, that people would stop buying CDs and download music and buy streaming subscriptions. And social media, that’s a whole new animal. Artists make their careers on social media. I’ve had 20 years of ups and downs, but it’s been great. I don’t mind the rollercoaster life—but I definitely don’t want to get on a real rollercoaster.
You’ve co-written many songs, but you don’t actually think of yourself as a songwriter. Why not?
I’ve written songs with John Hahn (her longtime manager and co-writer), Dr. John and people like that. But there’s a difference between a songwriter and somebody who writes songs. I cook dinner for my family. That doesn’t make me a chef. I’m so blessed to work with Mary Gauthier, Will Kimbrough, Oliver Wood, Dr. John. They’re better writers than I’ll ever be.
How did Louisiana native Mary Gauthier enter your creative sphere?
Isn’t she brilliant? John Hahn introduced me to her music. And she knew about John and I. Her writing is so honest and so real. She puts it together like art, not just words on a page.
America’s Child is the fourth album you’ve recorded in Nashville. Rather than phone their vocals in, nearly all of your guests joined you in the studio for the project.
That’s the nice thing about recording in Nashville. Everybody’s there. And it’s not about genre. They just want play good music. All these people who sang on my record, nobody was thinking, ‘Oh, we’re going to go sing on a blues record.’ It was just about the songs and the message.
I was a giddy schoolgirl in the studio when John Prine sang next to me. He’s one of the greatest. And watching Rhiannon Giddens play African banjo was like, ‘Whoa.’ It felt real and awesome.
Dr. John, a.k.a. Mac Rebennack, produced your 2002 third album, Talking to Strangers. He wrote songs on the album, played piano and sang a duet with you of “The Push I Need.” Did Dr. John and your father know each other?
He and my dad were great friends. That album was probably like the experience would have been if I’d made a record with my father. It felt like dad was working through Mac. And I just love Mac. ‘The Push I Need’ is the perfect song for us. And Mac really did give me the push I needed. He was so involved in making the record and then so involved after it was made. We did a lot of stuff together.
And then 12 years after Talking to Strangers, you sang a duet of “Sweet Hunk O’ Trash” with Dr. John for his 2014 album, Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch.
We recorded that together in New Orleans. But we couldn’t hardly get any work done because we were too busy telling stories about my dad. I took my mom with me and we had a ball down there.
Of course, your father is Johnny Copeland. When did you decide to follow in his footsteps?
I had no intentions of doing that. Because I watched my dad and thought, ‘Wow. He travels all the time. He’s working so hard and not making any money.’ I thought, ‘Hmm. I can’t do that. That’s insane.’ And I saw how powerful and amazing my dad was on stage. I didn’t have the confidence to do anything like that.
But I used to go sit in with him. And I’d sing the first set for him. But I didn’t think I would be an entertainer. And then, before he died, something came over me. I got a calling. It said, ‘You gotta put your big-girl panties on. This is what you’re supposed to do.’
And suddenly you felt confident about performing?
God provides people with their gifts. But for years I didn’t think anyone wanted to listen to me. I’m not one of those singers who does all the vocal acrobatics. But you know what? I’m not like everybody else. I sound different. And I thought about Mavis Staples. That woman can move you with a moan. All she has to do is go ‘Hmm.’ So, it’s not about how many notes you sing.
You were actually a professional singer when were child, weren’t you?
I was eight and my father was on stage at the Cotton Club. He saw me in the audience and started playing a song that he and I sang around the house. I knew he was going to call me on stage. And he did. I was horrified. But after I was up there for a while, dad could see me getting more comfortable. I got a little regular gig out of that, singing with Ann Sinclair at the Cotton Club gospel brunch on Sundays.
Your son was born December 24, 2016. Has becoming a mom affected your outlook? There’s a lot of social commentary on America’s Child. Are you concerned about the state of the union?
I’m hopeful. I love my country. Do I think my country needs to go through extensive rehab? Absolutely. You can hear my frustration on the album. But I’m hopeful for my child that things will get better. We’re not great now, but I know how great we can be.
Was participating in In Performance at the White House: Red, White and Blues in 2012 among the greatest things you’ve done?
That was the craziest two days of my life. I’m at the White House. We’re rehearsing. It’s actually Presidents’ Day and the show is the next day. Jeff Beck and Buddy Guy are rehearsing their song and, of course, they’re loud. Obama comes downstairs to hang out and listen to the rehearsal.
The next day I’m sitting there with B.B. King. He tells me, ‘I’ve been to the White House for every president since Gerald Ford. I’m so proud and happy to be here now.’
And then I’m standing in line behind Buddy Guy to get my picture taken with Obama. Buddy almost ruined my picture! He says, ‘I can’t believe this. From the cotton fields to the White House.’ And I thought to myself, ‘Buddy is in his late seventies. This is his first time at the White House. How blessed am I to be here in my thirties!’ And my eyes start welling up. I’m like, ‘Why is Buddy doing this to me! Ahh!’
I was so upset! But I did get my picture taken with Obama and I look fine. But I didn’t look fine because of Buddy Guy!
You’re appearing at the Americana Music Festival in Nashville for the first time. Are you still a blues artist or are you an Americana artist now?
Blues is the oldest form of music. Everything comes from this genre. That’s nothing anyone hasn’t heard before. A few weeks ago, I went to go see Foreigner and Whitesnake. I heard so much blues in their show. It was amazing to me. If you strip away the hair and lower the volume, it’s blues.
Are you looking forward to playing the Crescent City Blues and BBQ Festival on October 13?
I’m bringing my husband, our little boy, my mom, my aunt, my brother and sister-in-law. Two of my best friends are coming, too. We’re going to have a ball.
And you do like barbecue, don’t you?
What human being upon Earth does not like barbecue?! My father is from Texas. My mom is from North Carolina. Growing up, I was right in the middle of that conversation about who has the best barbecue—North Carolina or Texas? I like it all. I don’t discriminate with my barbecue or anything else.