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Best of both worlds: Queen of the Blues Shemekia Copeland returns to her Texas roots

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Chris Becker, Rare Birds, Shemekia Copeland, October 2012
Shemekia Copeland Courtesy Photo
Chris Becker, Rare Birds, Shemekia Copeland, Johnny Copeland
 Johnny Copeland Photo by © James Fraher
Chris Becker, Rare Birds, Shemekia Copeland, October 2012, album cover
Shemekia Copeland's 33 1/3  Courtesy Photo

"The blues is American music, you know?" says singer and currently annoited "Queen of the Blues" Shemekia Copeland, who performs Thursday at Dosey Doe. "It's unfortunate that in America it gets treated like the bastard genre of all music. But it is an American music. It's an American art form."

Indeed. The blues is a music that was birthed simultaneously in a number of geographical locations and in a variety of guises. Mississippi of course is known as "the cradle of the blues," but then again, what did Blind Lemon Jefferson sing on his 1926 recording "Got The Blues?" "The blues come to Texas, loping like a mule." The ongoing mystery of where or how the blues began is an indication of the breadth of expression contained in this American art form.

 What did Blind Lemon Jefferson sing on his 1926 recording "Got The Blues?" "The blues come to Texas, loping like a mule."

 Texas' blues pedigree is now widely acknowledged and well-documented. And one of the music's best known ambassadors, Shemekia's father, the late great guitarist and singer Johnny "Clyde" Copeland, grew up and learned the blues in here in Houston, TX.

After years of honing his craft in the city's Third Ward and making records as far back as 1958 on labels that included Mercury and Paradise, Johnny Copeland relocated to New York in 1975. He would remain there and go on to enjoy a very successful recording career, including a Grammy-winning three-way collaboration with guitarists Albert Collins and Robert Cray called Showdown. His daughter Shemekia was born in Harlem in 1979.

A hell of a combination

"I always sang," says Shemekia. "I was probably singing around the age of three. There was always music in the house. My dad kind of sat around the house playing the guitar, so I just started singing with him." It wasn't long before Shemekia began to travel the world with her father.

After relocating from Houston to Harlem, did her father miss Texas?

"Are you kidding me?" says Shemekia. "My father was a proud Texan, just like any other Texan you'd meet in your life."

"I grew up in New York," she says. "Born and raised in New York, and I happen to be proud of that. And I think my music has a more urban kind of feel. But I say "y'all" all the time cos' my daddy was from Texas. And my mama is from North Carolina, so I have all that in me. Hell of a combination!"

 "I'm trying to take it to another level," says Shemekia of her music. "And talk about issues of today and keep the music moving forward."

 "But the cool thing about my father is he was innovative," she continues. "It didn't matter where he was from. He was always innovative and he always doing different things. He was the first blues guitarist to travel to Africa and work with African musicians and make a record (Bringing It All Back Home) over there with them. He was always doing something different, something interesting and cool."

"When we traveled to Europe," says Shemekia, recalling those early days of touring with her father. "It's just different over there, in a sense that they have a respect for tradition and traditional things. They love old people, they love older things. They take care of old people, they take care of older things, you know?"

"In America," she says. "They're always looking for what's new. 'What's new, what's new, what's new?' Every time you turn on the television, there's a new television show where they're looking for 'a new voice' or a 'new idol.'"

Vinyl references

Shemekia's latest album 33 1/3 is as innovative and down home as the best of her father's recordings. The songs deal with poverty ("Lemon Pie"), domestic violence ("Ain't Gonna Be Your Tattoo") and hypocrisy ("Mississippi Mud"). Shemekia's voice is her instrument, and she uses it to great effect on 33 1/3's program which includes songs by Bob Dylan, Sam Cooke, and not surprisingly, her father ("One More Time"). Houston musician and producer Oscar Perry could have easily been describing Shemekia when he said of her father, "He felt his music when he performed, I mean really felt it. He would just use his own feeling to do what he had to do as an artist."

 When it comes to Shemekia and her music, you get the best of both worlds, the north and the south, old school and the new, the cosmopolitan and the funky, musical legacy and "ancient to the future" blues. 

As it should be with an album called 33 1/3 which, for those of you born after 1982, refers to a vinyl record's number of revolutions per minute, the recording has a warm, analog sound, befitting Shemekia's voice and the musical contributions of such luminaries as guitarist Buddy Guy, whose own recent recordings have embraced a similar old school sound while still driving the music into the future.

Her touring band, guitarists Willie Scandlyn and Arthur Neilson, drummer Morris Roberts, and bassist Kevin Jenkins, is as solid and as funky as they come, and there's no doubt that they'll tear the roof off at the Dosey Doe.

When it comes to Shemekia and her music, you get the best of both worlds, the north and the south, old school and the new, the cosmopolitan and the funky, musical legacy and "ancient to the future" blues.

"I'm trying to take it to another level," says Shemekia of her music. "And talk about issues of today and keep the music moving forward."

"I'm singing about what's going on right now in the world," she says. "And it's pretty deep."

(Very special thanks to James Fraher for providing me with a photograph of Johnny Copeland for this article.)

Shemekia Copeland plays  Thursday night at the Dosey Doe, 25911 I-45 North, The Woodlands. Tickets include dinner served from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Stage time is 8 p.m. For ticket information call 281-367-3774.

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