Wall Street Journal Reviews Shemekia Copeland's UNCIVIL WAR

'Uncivil War' by Shemekia Copeland Review:
Bold and Timely Blues
The singer’s album joins unyielding calls for justice with hope for reconciliation.

By Barry Mazor
Nov. 2, 2020

Shemekia Copeland was performing in 1989, at age 10, and by her teens was opening for her father, Texas blues star Johnny Copeland; she released the first of her 10 consistently lauded and awarded albums in 1998. Her commanding, R&B-inflected voice and consummate song readings have taken her to the top of the contemporary blues field, and in 2011 she was literally handed the crown Koko Taylor had held as “Queen of the Blues” at the Chicago Blues Festival.

Ms. Copeland’s ferocious vocal power is noted and praised so often that it’s possible to miss the sweet-tempered, kindhearted nature that lies not far from that surface—a trait she shares with soul queen Mavis Staples. Her firm but affable temperament has helped make Ms. Copeland an adept ambassador for blues and R&B—most recently as the charming host of this year’s virtual Blues Music Awards and of her own weekly SiriusXM radio show, “B.B. King’s Bluesville.” Coupled with her musical flexibility and ambition, that disposition also contributed to her reaching out from the blues world to the broader Americana audience, with one of 2018’s strongest albums in that boundary-busting field, the Nashville-produced “America’s Child” (Alligator Records). That collection’s tone was set by its sharp, pounding opening number, “Ain’t Got Time for Hate.”

Oct. 23 marked the release of her Covid-delayed follow-up album, “Uncivil War” (Alligator), which like “America’s Child” features a number of songs written to order and mood for Ms. Copeland by her manager, John Hahn, and the album’s producer, the in-demand singer-songwriter and guitar ace Will Kimbrough. It’s a testament to the regard in which musicians hold her, and the breadth of sounds incorporated in the music, that the flabbergasting array of rock, soul, country and blues guitarists on the set includes—in addition to Mr. Kimbrough—Jason Isbell, Steve Cropper, Duane Eddy, Jerry Douglas, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram and Webb Wilder.

That Ms. Copeland continues to be both unyielding in her calls for justice—personal and social—and hopeful about the possibilities for reconciliation seems positively gutsy in this time of division and, as the title song puts it, frequent “uncivility.” The ferocious side is heard, for example, in the opening track, “Clotilda’s on Fire,“ as she relates the story of the last slave ship to arrive on these shores, in 1859. (Its sunken hulk was found in Mobile Bay in 2019.) “We’re still livin’,” she reminds us, and then adds, after a telling pause, “with her ghost.” The singer’s determination and the album’s step-by-step march toward some encouraging resolution are marked by the very next track, “Walk Until I Ride,” which is in the uplifting mode of 1960s civil-rights movement soul anthems, and the folk-rock-influenced title track that follows that. “How long must we fight this uncivil war,” she asks, “the same old wounds that we opened before?... Nobody wins…an uncivil war.”

While these new numbers are forceful, it’s the recording’s cover songs that especially reveal the album’s broad intentions. “Give God the Blues,” a trenchant work featuring an irresistible bass line, observes that “God don’t hate the Muslims; God don’t hate the Jews, God don’t hate the Christians—but we all give God the blues.” Its three songwriters—Shawn Mullins, Phil Madeira and Chuck Cannon—have all recorded it previously; the Shemekia Copeland take is at once cheeky, blues-inflected and especially pointed. Power in personal relationships is dealt with just as boldly. Her slow, deliberate take on Junior Parker’s 1961 R&B hit “In the Dark” lets the cheating, drinking culprit know, in no uncertain terms, that he’ll face a reckoning sooner or later. (Mr. Cropper’s guitar sears on this one, as Mr. Isbell’s does on the opening track.) And for some gender-bending table turning, we’re provided a triumphant, soulful version of the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb.” That song has often been singled out as a particularly outrageous demonstration of sexism; the Copeland version reminds us that it’s perfectly possible for a woman to sing this “now I’m in charge” song to a man—and that it exemplifies a mood, not necessarily a life philosophy.

Most telling of all is the album closer, a very sweet, exuberant take on “Love Song,” an original by Ms. Copeland’s father. It at once expresses love for him, for the blues, and for getting together with friends to sing. It provides an upbeat, touching resolution to the consequential ride that this powerful set takes us on.