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There's no telling whether or not Shemekia Copeland has ever read any theorizing about the social, cultural and theological significance of the blues from such thinkers as Angela Davis, James Cone and Kelly Brown Douglas, but she certainly brings a keen sense of purpose to her own Southern-accented, soul-steeped approach to modern blues.
Copeland is a second-generation performer, the daughter of the Texas bluesman Johnny Copeland, who persuaded her to open for him on the road late in his life. The hip-hop-conversant, Harlem-bred singer wasn't yet out of her teens when she started recording her own head-turning albums two decades ago, conscious of the fact that she was stepping into a historical lineage of brassily outspoken blues divas, but a contemporary scene populated with more shredding, male guitar gods than anything else. She preferred songs that let her play the part of a woman taking up for herself and spelling out what she wanted from a man, for the long haul or just for the night. Copeland also peppered her repertoire with grounded social commentary: testimonies to the precarious existences of people living in urban poverty, rejections of oppressive narratives of middle-class status, wealth and femininity and colorful condemnations of domestic violence.
Roughly a decade into her career, she stopped looking exclusively to her familiar blues, soul and R&B song sources for material. From then on, she would intersperse selections from deified singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan and Americana fixtures like Buddy and Julie Miller and Lucinda Williams ("Can't Let Go" was popularized by Williams, but written by Randy Weeks). She also chose a producer who travels in Americana circles, Oliver Wood, guitarist and frontman of the jazzy roots combo The Wood Brothers. It's a partnership that's lasted three albums and gradually shifted her away from the muscular, house-rocking, hard-swinging sound and indefatigable belting vocal attack she'd been known for toward more rhythmically relaxed grooves, countrified licks and down-home textures. This was an act of both artistic evolution and professional repositioning.
Blues is one of the black-pioneered roots forms that's been absorbed into the Americana aesthetic, and here was Copeland, a star of the blues world, making it a two-way exchange, beginning to draw on other Americana sensibilities —namely its folk-reviving, throwback country-idealizing, rock-schooled individualistic voice — to expand her expression and signal her affinity for the scene. (She hasn't been the only artist to make such a move, though most of the others have been at least a generation ahead of her. See: Solomon Burke, Mavis Staples, Bettye Lavette, Bobby Rush and Candi Staton.)
On her eighth album, America's Child, produced by Will Kimbrough, a Nashvillian with quite the resume, who's played guitar in Emmylou Harris' band in recent years, Copeland offers a true hybrid of simmering, real-talking spirit and emphatic, folkie- and soul-style statement-making. The array of guest performers convened by Kimbrough and Copeland — including Harris, John Prine, Mary Gauthier and Rhiannon Giddens — signal Copeland's belonging within their rootsy ranks. Giddens, for one, contributes loping African banjo figures to the string band tune "Smoked Ham and Peaches."
Some of the songs in this set bear a kinship to Copeland's earlier work. During the lean, slow-burning soul ballad "Promised Myself," her phrasing surges and flares as she sings about being toughened by heartbreak, only to find herself reluctantly yielding to romance. "The Wrong Idea," a rollicking country-blues shuffle, showcases the sass she can summon with her robust instrument. "You've got the wrong idea / You're not the reason that I came here / You've got the wrong idea / Be a good boy; go back to your beer," she scoffs, enunciating the last line with cutting clarity.
A different side of her playfulness comes out in "Americans," a drolly celebratory cataloging of diversity written by Gauthier and Copeland's manager and longtime, in-house songwriter John Hahn and set to springy, snaking second-line groove. Copeland reels off a list of types of people — "a slick-haired deplorable," "a southern-belle beauty queen," "a transgender sugar daddy," "a Mexican pinup girl" — with a snappiness that accentuates their conventionality or idiosyncrasy.
During the chugging blues-rock number "Ain't Got Time For Hate," penned for Copeland by Hahn and Kimbrough, her authoritative vibrato dismisses contempt for difference as a waste of energy in light of people's shared anxieties. That theme assumes far more confrontational intensity in "Would You Take My Blood?" Copeland repeats the title's question twice in a row during the chorus, her delivery projecting punchy defiance, before laying out the alternative: "Or would you rather die than share your life with mine?" She sounds burdened by the awareness that there are, in fact, forms of racism and prejudice so virulent that people would rather cling to them than preserve their lives with an infusion of blood from someone they regard as less than fully human.
Shemekia Copeland betrays the most potent conviction during "In the Blood of the Blues," entering into a heated call-and-response with Will Kimbrough's wailing guitar licks. She sings, with growling vigor, of the suffering of black slaves, sharecroppers and victims of Jim Crow violence echoing through the spirit of the blues. She's a dynamic enough communicator to wring fresh horror from each bit of imagery: "I'm the twist in the wire tying every bale of cotton / I'm the shout in the field that echoes across the sea / I'm the newsprint walls in a one-room shack in Stovall / And the blade on the knife that cut my brother from the tree." It's hard to imagine anyone staking a more convincing claim to the territory she's staked out.