Shemekia Copeland – Uncivil War (Alligator Records)

The daughter of a bona fide Texas Twister, Johnny Copeland, Shemekia quickly carved out a name for herself with her scorching debut at age 19. With a voice like a hurricane, years spent woodshedding with her famous father gave her a considerable head start in the blues. Now, nine releases later, she continues to be a gale force wind to be reckoned with. Picking up where America’s Child left off, Uncivil War takes a critical look at the chaos we’re living in and she’s got a message to spread. More focused, Copeland storms the podium with 3 covers and 9 originals (penned by John Hahn and Will Kimbrough, with Webb Wilder and Tom Hambridge checking in for a co-write). Copeland sings with such conviction, you wish for her own hand at writing because, on occasion, the preaching can seem contrived and, over time, one can’t help but feel you’re being scolded. Thankfully, there are moments of levity and a few surprises. The battle begins with the highly tasteful “Clotilda’s On Fire” – a symbolic telling of the fiery end of America’s last slave ship, with thanks to Jason Isbell’s sizeable contribution on guitar. More ghosts appear with the treatment of racism on the (somewhat surprisingly) upbeat “Walk Until I Ride”, Jerry Douglas’ lap steel, underlining the defiant stance. The title track is the album’s highlight – thematically and otherwise – flavoured by Jerry Douglas’ dobro, Steve Conn’s B3 and the lush background vocals of the Orphan Brigade. Lead guitarist “Kingfish” Ingram rips into the powerful “Money Makes You Ugly” as the brow-beating continues, albeit using legit references to reinforce its claim. A tribute to Dr. John seems a fitting eulogy, yet “Dirty Saint’s” too-wordy approach detracts from the moment. Copeland’s delightful restructuring of the Stones’ sacrosanct “Under My Thumb” makes her point in subtle fashion while producer Will Kimbrough adds delicate flourishes on guitar against a wall of finger-snappers – a stand-out example of what Copeland can do when she tones things down a bit. Likewise, “Give God The Blues” embraces a gentle approach, loyal to the Shawn Mullins track, adding tasteful guitar from co-writer Phil Madeira. ”Apple Pie And A .45” is marred by overwrought lyrics while the hilarious “She Don’t Wear Pink” barely fits here – but is another refreshing diversion threatening to take on a life of its own, featuring guitar from Duane Eddy and co-writer (and tongue-in-cheek co-writer), Webb Wilder.
Make no mistake. Shemekia Copeland is a young, bold and beautifully soulful voice for the blues. Her loving cover of her Dad’s “Love Song”, seems to speak to the West African proverb that says – “speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.” Herein lies a lesson that less can be more. (Eric Thom)