Release date: October 23, 2020
By Greg Easterling.
Photo: Jennifer Noble
In dark times like these, we really need an album like this to help light the way and occasionally burn with scorching statements about what's going on. In this respect, Shemekia Copeland's new 2020 Alligator Records release, Uncivil War, continues to place her in the same space as Sam Cooke, Mavis and Pops Staples, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye all of whom have made music that challenged the conscience and entertained the spirit. The Chicago Tribune calls Shemekia “the greatest female blues vocalist working today” and while that's totally correct, let's drop the categories finally and define her as one of the greatest singers of our day, regardless of gender or style.
That being said, Shemekia's latest, Uncivil War, does find us at a proverbial crossroads though not the same type pictured by Robert Johnson. It's a crossroads of history during the worst pandemic of our lifetime just days before one of the most crucial presidential elections in the last 60 years. Black lives finally matter again a way we haven't seen since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led his historic crusade. But this time, it's the devil inside that is most concerning, instead of a shadowy figure in the middle of a Mississippi Delta night.
Once again recording in Nashville with guitarist Will Kimbrough producing, Shemekia tackles a variety of today's issues on Uncivil War while still reaching back for some time honored covers of songs by The Rolling Stones, Junior Parker, and her father, esteemed blues man Johnny Clyde Copeland. It's the follow up to 2018's award winning America's Child and the album begins with a bang; “Clotilda’s On Fire” is a narrative of the last slave ship to arrive on Alabama shores in 1859 and its demise. The subject compels Shemekia to bring it vocally just minutes into the album which in turn inspires guest Jason Isbell to unleash a fiery hot guitar solo.
After the history lesson, Shemekia comes right back to the modern day with a civil rights inspired anthem for right now. “Walk Until I Ride” revisits the other side of the tracks, life in an economically challenged ‘hood with the wrong zip code. Beginning with a quick intro that teases Aretha's classic “Chain Of Fools,” this song sets the pace for all that follows on Uncivil War. “I'm gonna walk until I ride/I'm gonna keep my head held way high/take my freedom, take my pride/I'm gonna walk, walk, walk until I ride.” Bluegrass mainstay Jerry Douglas contributes some memorable lap steel guitar here with a dash of churchy sounding organ and call-and-response from backing singers Lisa Oliver-Gray, Janelle Means and producer Kimbrough. That good gospel feeling really soars in the faster paced second half of the song which takes this track to church on the South Side of Chicago in spirit.
The album's title track is written by Shemekia's manager John Hahn who crafts songs especially for Copeland with help this time from Kimbrough and several others including rocker Webb Wilder and Buddy Guy producer Tom Hambridge. “Uncivil War” probes the current strife between red and blue which often seems to mirror the conflict between the blue and grey in the real Civil War. “How long must we fight this uncivil war?,” asks Shemekia, wondering “Why can't we all just get along?” Douglas solos on dobro this time joined by New Grass Revival legend Sam Bush on mandolin and Steve Conn on the Hammond B3.
A Stones-like riff and an aggressive attitude propel the next song, “Money Makes You Ugly.” The guitars are particularly important on this one, played by rising star Christone “Kingfish” Ingram with support from producer Kimbrough. Lyrically it's an assault on corporate powers who make life changing decisions that impact loyal employees negatively but still reward themselves monetarily. “Money makes you ugly/baby that's the truth/money makes you ugly/you're the living proof/one thing in life I know for sure” is the chorus delivered so effectively by Shemekia here who concludes, “That's why I'm glad to be poor”. This song just flat out rocks and you can just tell that she enjoyed delivering the message here in the put-down tradition of Dylan's “Positively 4th Street.” Sometimes it's just the right call to make.
“Dirty Saint” is a tribute to the late Dr. John a.k.a. Mac Rebennack who produced Shemekia's 2002 Alligator release, “Talking To Strangers,” which added New Orleans to Copeland's list of musical influences. You couldn't find a better Crescent City mentor than Dr. John, The Night Tripper as he was known earlier for commercial purposes. Shemekia repays the favor of his musical company with this infectious piece of second line rhythm featuring some funky guitar figures from producer Kimbrough and complementary organ by Phil Madeira.
It's real Rolling Stones next from Shemekia who's done such a fine job in classic rock territory previously with songs originally by Z.Z. Top and Creedence Clearwater Revival. But this time it's Shemekia who turns the tables on “the guy who once had me down” in “Under My Thumb,” the minor Jagger-Richards classic from Aftermath. You're always going to miss the trademark marimba riff of the original executed so flawlessly by Brian Jones but Shemekia's more spare arrangement works too with the non-cluttered sound of Kimbrough's guitar against the cool West Side Story-like finger work of The Shemekia Snappers. She's in good company covering this one time Stone standard following previous attempts by Del Shannon, Tina Turner and John Hunter with The Hounds from Chicago.
“Apple Pie and a .45” harkens back to the message songs earlier in the album with opponents of gun control squarely in Shemekia's sights this . Shemekia decries the lack of support for reasonable efforts to halt the gun violence epidemic which predated the pandemic. “How many kids gonna have to die”, she asks, sounding strong over a tough garage band lineup of guitar, bass and drums highlighting the album's rhythm section of Lex Price and Pete Abbott.
The seeming contradictions that sometimes appear in the world's great religions catch Shemekia's attention next in “Give God The Blues,” co-written by Phil Madeira with Shawn Mullins and Chuck Cannon. “God don't hate the Muslims/ God don't hate the Jews/God don't hate the Christians/God loves everybody/but we all give God the blues” are lines in a song that levels the playing field. Similarly, gender stereotypes also come under examination in “She Don't Wear Pink.” Certified guitar legend Duane Eddy shows up on this one along with the song's co-author Webb Wilder.
Affairs of the heart, or the lack thereof, are highlighted in “No Heart at All.” It's not until this 10th track that an original Hahn-Kimbrough song (assisted here by Hambridge) focuses on the most common subject matter for songs of all styles, the search for love and its repercussions, both good and bad. Next, it's a slow blues for cheaters with a cover of Junior Parker's “In The Dark” featuring the return of Memphis legend, Steve Cropper, who produced Shemekia's 2005 Alligator album, The Soul Truth.
Uncivil War ends on a strong but sentimental note with a tribute to Shemekia's dad, Johnny Clyde Copeland and the classy “Love Song.” Kimbrough contributes an uplifting, classic guitar solo that ends the album in a happier way with an ode to love in earlier stages. It's become a tradition for Shemekia to cover at least one of her late father's songs per album. A compilation of just these special Copeland family cuts would make for a very nice blues mix tape.
Recorded, mixed and mastered at The Butcher Shoppe in Nashville, Uncivil War taps into the wealth of musicians and producers who live in Music City. It's fertile ground for talent but a long way from the Windy City and Shemekia's longtime label, Alligator Records. Credit the latter for granting her the chance to bring different influences into her music and broaden the audience for Chicago's great hometown sound. It's a trend that hopefully will continue to expand the audience worldwide and nationally for Shemekia Copeland and her brand of blues informed by Americana, roots rock and whatever else may come her way musically. Shemekia dedicates this album to the memory of the aforementioned Dr. John and also John Prine who dueted with Copeland on her previous record.
Even in the midst of a pandemic, we can still be entertained and challenged by performers such as Shemekia who care enough to produce organic sounding American music that rocks. It's not the typical pop music that has populated the non-blues charts for far too long now. But year when top stars like Taylor Swift have embraced a rootsier approach, Shemekia leads the way symbolically with Uncivil War. Now it's up to the rest of us and our media outlets to support music that's worthwhile for today and a reminder in the future of how we found inspiration to survive 2020, a year we will never forget.
Greg Easterling hosts American Backroads on WDCB (90.9 FM) Thursdays at 9 p.m.