In a span of less than two decades, Shemekia Copeland has evolved from teenage upstart to one of the most prominent voices in the blues. She’s currently the most feted woman in the blues world and actually had a coronation where she was crowned and declared “Queen of the Blues” at the Chicago Blues Festival in 2011. Shemekia earned her crown with a series of high-quality recordings and an unrelenting tour schedule that has taken her to all corners of the globe. She’s played all the major festivals and concert dates from Europe to Iraq to a memorable performance at the White House in front of an audience that included the President of the United States, sharing the bill with Buddy Guy, Mick Jagger, Jeff Beck, B.B. King and other greats.
Earlier this year, Shemekia participated in two tribute concerts celebrating recently departed great Hubert Sumlin and Robert Johnson’s centennial, both at New York’s Apollo Theater in Harlem, not far from the neighborhood where Shemekia spent her childhood. Those nights she was a featured attraction along with Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Derek Trucks, Elvis Costello and Taj Mahal. Clearly, she’s risen to the top of the field and that reckoning is underscored with the forthcoming album release of 33 1/3, her second for Telarc International, a division of Concord Music Group.
For Shemekia, it’s all about ushering the blues – an art form that stretches back to the early 1900s – into a fast-paced new century and keeping the music true to its roots, making it relevant to a new generation. Her latest step in this ongoing journey is 33 1/3, an 11-song CD set for release on September 25, 2012.
The album’s title is a nod to Shemekia’s past, but also an acknowledgment of where she is right now. “I always loved vinyl records,” she says, recalling her teenage years in the twilight of the vinyl era. “I loved the whole experience – looking through them in the bins at the store, taking in the cover design on the sleeve, reading the liner notes while I listened to the music. Nobody under a certain age knows that experience anymore. So when John Hahn, my manager, who also wrote some of the songs on this record, asked me what I grew up listening to, I said, ‘LPs.’” And he said, ‘How many times did they go around?’ and I said ‘33 1/3 revolutions per minute.’ He said, ‘How old will you be when this record is released?’ I said ‘33 1/3.’ It’s a meaningful number for me, especially at this time in my life and in my career.”
The material on 33 1/3 is culled from a variety of high-profile sources, including Bob Dylan, Sam Cooke, pater familias Johnny Clyde Copeland and Randy Weeks. Shemekia weaves it all together with assistance from a skilled studio crew: guitarist/producer Oliver Wood (Wood Brothers), bassist Ted Pecchio (Susan Tedeschi) and drummer Gary Hansen. Various guest musicians step in along the way, including the Buddy Guy.
“Every one of these songs tells a story about where I am in my life,” says Shemekia. “They all connect to something that has happened to me, both good and bad. I’ve experienced a lot since I started making records and touring more than 15 years ago, and I think people want to tap into the wisdom that comes with that experience. I tried to bring a little bit of that to every one of these songs.”
The set opens with the swampy and primal “Lemon Pie,” a confrontational track that addresses the cavernous gap that currently divides the haves and the have-nots. “This whole country was built on the idea of people being able to come here and be part of a strong middle class,” says Shemekia. “Now, it’s becoming a place where you have just the rich and the poor and nobody in between.”
She takes Randy Weeks’ “Can’t Let Go,” initially a country hit for Lucinda Williams, and recasts it in a gritty blue light, courtesy of Wood’s dirty slide guitar. “When you’re in a room with someone like Oliver, anything can happen,” she says. “When all was said and done, it had become a very funky track. I think Oliver’s a genius.”
The dark and mysterious “Ain’t Gonna Be Your Tattoo” tells a tale of violence that ends with Shemekia’s character finding the courage to walk out. The song gets its ominous vibe from Buddy Guy’s searing guitar lines. “I originally knew Buddy through my father, but I started touring with him back in 1997,” says Shemekia. “I opened for him way back then. And he’s always been very good to me and very supportive. I have a lot of ‘uncles’ in this business – guys who kind of took me under their wing after my dad passed away. Buddy is one of those guys. It’s the perfect song for him.”
The crunchy, midtempo “Mississippi Mud,” including guest vocals by J.J. Grey, cautions against the human tendency toward succumbing to inertia and narrow thinking. “It’s a song about people who are stuck, set in their ways,” says Shemekia. “The mud is a metaphor for anything that keeps you stuck in a backward, rigid way of thinking. It’s about people who only see things in black and white, and can’t see anything in between – or don’t want to see anything in between. The world is changing, and people need to decide to be a part of the change.”
Shemekia borrows “One More Time” from her father’s catalog. Set in an understated shuffle groove with tasty accents from harpist Jon Liebman, the song is a last chance warning issued to a lover with a track record of extracurricular liaisons. But the confrontational vibe immediately pivots to something much more lively and soulful with “Ain’t That Good News,” a Sam Cooke song that Shemekia sings as an ode to her husband. “He and I both travel quite a bit,” she says, “and every time one of us calls the other to say we’re coming home, we’re always excited.”
The set closes with a sultry and seductive innovatively rearranged version of Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” the vocal track delivered in something just beyond a hush. “The way that Oliver had me sing it is just so incredible,” she says. “It’s almost like a whisper. It’s very different from the way I usually sing, and I love it.”
While 33 1/3 takes a number of different directions, courtesy of songwriters representing a variety of styles, it always moves at the right speed, and it positions the artist right where she wants to be in relation to her music, her fans and history itself. 33 1/3 is a real album experience, something quite rare these days. To be sure, each track stands on its own but the whole is, somehow, more than the sum of its parts.
“I’ve always wanted to be a blues singer,” says Shemekia. “I never wanted to be anything else. There are so many people for whom the blues was not their genre of choice, but they landed here because they got rejected elsewhere. That was never the case for me. I want to see this music evolve and grow, and for that to happen, I have to evolve and grow as an artist. I have to be able to sing a folk song by Bob Dylan or a country song by Randy Weeks and reinterpret it in the context of the blues. It’s at the heart of just about every other form of American music. It’s a genre that tells stories. I want to tell as many of those stories as I can – at 33 1/3 and beyond.”