Shemekia Copeland Stamps Singular Brand of Socially Conscious Blues-Americana on ‘Uncivil War’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Uncivil War continues to expand the socially conscious singular combination of blues and Americana that has now defined the powerful blues vocalist Shemekia Copeland. As we’ve heard on her recent efforts, Copeland addresses contemporary life in America with a balance of understanding and empathy as well as an unapologetic stance that defiantly calls for change and unity. Her ability to fuse blues, R&B and folk-like Americana gives the adventurous, poignant lyrics and music a sound that she can truly call her own. 

Uncivil War is the fifth consecutive album Harlem-born and raised, Chicago-based Shemekia Copeland has recorded in Nashville and the second consecutive with producer Will Kimbrough.  Both artists are highly decorated, with 2018’s America’s Child having garnered both the Blues Music Award and the Living Blues Award for Album of the Year. Kimbrough was also recognized as Producer of the Year and is an Americana favorite son in terms of his instrumental and songwriting skills too. (Coincidentally his own solo effort, Spring Break is released today and is also covered on these pages). America’s Child, like two of her Nashville-recorded predecessors received a Grammy nomination.  Copeland also consistently wins the BMA for Contemporary Female Blues Artist of the Year. 

Uncivil War begins in riveting fashion with the true, historical “Clotilda’s On Fire,” telling the story of the very last slave ship to arrive in America (in Mobile Bay, Alabama) in 1859, 50 years after slave trade was banned. The ship was burned and sunk by the captain to destroy the evidence and was not discovered until 2019. The searing blues guitar solo comes from Jason Isbell, the second time this year his sideman turn has significantly infused a song, the other being his slide guitar on Jerry Joseph’s searing “Dead Confederate,” another incredible song about racism. Another strong statement is the title track, where she tries to find hope and makes a plea for unity in our contemporary divided world.  Copeland says, “I’m trying to put the ‘united’ back in the United States. Like many people, I miss the days when we treated each other better. For me, this country’s all about people with differences coming together to be part of something we all love. That’s what really makes America beautiful.”

This writer concluded the review of America’s Child with these prescient words – The album is all about the healing power of music and it covers every emotion from anger to tenderness, to joy and positivity. No other singer could bring intensity to this material as well as Copeland does. She has not only made her strongest album. She has made a career statement that should earn both she and Kimbrough plenty of Grammy nods.”  So, the issue and challenge here is for Uncivil War to meet this sky-high bar. It is certainly comparable but having felt the jarring impact of the predecessor, Uncivil War is at best, on par, itself a great achievement. Copeland fervently believes each album should make its own statement and that each should be markedly different from the other. In that way, she has violated her own rule because Uncivil War is much more similar than different. Arguably, why flirt with success? Yet, of course, there are differences too. 

The album again features high profile guests but they are a different cast which include Jason Isbell, Steve Cropper, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Webb Wilder, Duane Eddy, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and The Orphan Brigade – collectively some of strongest artists in their respective genres, coming together to blur those genre defining borders. 

Copeland’s career-long manager and principal songwriter John Hahn here taps some co-writers (Wilder, Tom Hambridge) but does most of the writing in collaboration with Kimbrough, unlike the other where Mary Gauthier and the late John Prine, among others, were prominent contributors. As with every Copeland album, there is “Love Song,” a tune from her father, Blues Hall-or-Famer Johnny “Clyde” Copeland, and several covers, including perhaps most surprisingly the Stones’ “Under My Thumb.”

Socially conscious material is at the heart of the album with “Apple Pie and A .45” addressing gun violence, “Walk Until I Ride,” taking a page from the Staples Singers civil rights messages, and “Money Makes You Ugly,” featuring piercing guitar from Kingfish, taking a shot at the wealthy 1%. “Dirty Saint” pays tribute to her lifelong friend, the late Dr. John, with Kimbrough compadre Phil Madeira on organ. Maderia appears again on guitar for the tune he wrote with Shawn Mullins and Chuck Cannon, “Give God The Blues,” obviously a perfect vehicle for Shemekia’s hair-raising vocals. <P>She covers bad love in Junior Parker’s classic “In the Dark,” (with Steve Cropper and Kimbrough on guitars) and pairs up two rocking guitarists, Eddy and Wilder, on “She Don’t Wear Pink.” Lap steel master Jerry Douglas appears on “Walk Until I Ride,” the title track and “No Heart at All” while elite mandolinist Sam Bush also graces the title track. Kimbrough, who can play multiple instruments, is content to just play guitar throughout the record backed by the returning rhythm tandem of bassist Lex Price and drummer Pete Abbott

Uncivil War is like an encore, as if to say – ‘If you didn’t hear me last time, I am back to remind us of who we could and should be. Stand tall and stand together.” Shemekia Copeland is not only the Queen of the Blues, the best blues singer on the planet, she is an increasingly important voice for our times. 

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