North Liberty Blues & BBQ
Centennial Park — Saturday, July 13 at 10 a.m.
(music starts at 12 p.m.)
For Shemekia Copeland, the blues comes in many forms these days. When I got her on the phone last week, she had spent the day before with her son and about 50 “2-, 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds on a field trip.”
“I came home, pulled all my hair out and had a glass of wine,” Copeland said, laughing.
She was enjoying a few days off from her first full tour since having her son, two-and-a-half-year-old Johnny Lee Copeland-Schultz, and she admits that it’s been a big readjustment to go back to a full time touring schedule.
“I’m really tired,” she admits. “At this age, I’m a little bit more tired, but it’s been going great.”
She’s been out as part of a bill including Marc Cohn and the Blind Boys of Alabama and Robert Cray, whom Copeland has known her whole life. Her father, blues guitar legend Johnny Copeland, collaborated with Cray on the 1986 Grammy-winning album Showdown!
“I wish I would have been a fly on the wall in the studio for that one, but I was only 6 years old then,” she said. “I first saw him at Carnegie Hall in New York City. I knew I was witnessing something cool.”
Copeland’s headlining set at the 13th annual North Liberty Blues & BBQ festival starts at 9 p.m. on Saturday, July 13. The musical lineup also includes sets from Southern Culture on the Skids, Gloria Hardiman & the Monday Night All-Stars, Kevin Burt, Joe & Vicki Price and Brian Johannesen. Admission is free.
She will be playing songs from America’s Child, released last fall on Alligator Records and recently awarded Blues Foundation Album of the Year.
Copeland’s ninth album, America’s Child is her most personal and widest-ranging record yet, which she said is the result of her new role as a mother.
“This album is based around my little guy. When he was born, everything for me changed. I wanted a better world for him. I know that makes me sound crazy, like a beauty queen or something. But no, I really felt that way,” Copeland said. “What better way to make the world a better place than by just putting it out there, musically.”
Copeland collected a cross-genre congress of all-stars for the 12-song release, including John Prine, Rhiannon Giddens, Mary Gauthier, Emmylou Harris and Steve Cropper. When I asked her how she managed to gather everyone up for the album, recorded in a week’s time at the Butcher Shoppe in Nashville, she said it all happened “organically.”
“I saw Rhiannon at the Chicago Blues Festival. We were talking about me making a new record, and she said, ‘I’d play on that record.’ And she did,” Copeland said. “Then, I was doing a gig at the Lyric Opera House in Chicago, and John Prine was on the show. We were standing back stage and he said, ‘I like your shoes.’ We sparked up a conversation, and before you know it, we were in Nashville together.”
Copeland’s guitarist and manager John Hahn shares six songwriting credits on the record. She said most of the songs grow first from the conversations she has with him on a daily basis.
“We’re always talking, talking about everything. All the time talking, and that’s how it starts: conversations. I talk to him about all the things that are bothering me, things that I want to say, you know, what I want to put out there. I’m really blessed that these songs are tailor made with me in mind,” she said.
“Ain’t Got Time For Hate,” which leads off the record, is a one-way blues rocker that finds Copeland at her sublime best: decrying the hatred of our time surrounded by a litany of voices, including Prine and Emmylou Harris.
“I think some people love hating. They love to hate, no matter what. You can say or do anything. It’s the perfect time for people who want to just hate, no matter what,” she said. “They find any excuse to be pissed off and mad about it. It’s a shame.”
Still, she has been finding some unexpected moments of unity out on tour. Recently, she was approached by a woman after a show. She told Copeland that she was married to an atheist and a racist, and she brought him to the show because she thought he might enjoy the music.
Copeland and her band played the song “Would You Take My Blood?” off of the new record, and, she said, “She told me she turned to him and said, ‘Do you hear her? Do you hear her?’ He was like, ‘Yeah I do hear her.’ I don’t know, but I feel like you changed something in him.’”
“That is why I do what I do,” Copeland said.
Apart from resuming touring and raising her young son, Copeland has also begun hosting a radio show on Sirius XM’s B.B. King’s Bluesville. Five days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., you can listen to Copeland curating blues music from the ’20s up to now. She said she slips in all the Johnny Copeland songs that she can get away with.
“Oh gosh yes, I play as much of that as passable,” she said, laughing.
Copeland is reminded now, with her son in tow on tour, that her music every night needs to be a conduit between people, bringing them together even if just for awhile. She recalls a recent incident before a show which showed her that musical persistence runs in the family, now three generations deep.
“It was about 10 minutes before we were going to go on and we were standing by the stage. Johnny was pushing me out there and he was saying, ‘Ma, Momma, go sing ‘Ain’t Got Time for Hate,’’’ Copeland said, laughing. “Then he got a way from my husband and ran clear across the stage in front of the audience. Everybody was laughing. At least he knows my music.”