Who is “America’s Child”? On the cover of Shemekia Copeland’s latest album, she’s a young African-American girl nestled in a field of heather. An American flag blankets her tiny body. A matching bow decorates the top of her head. And she’s bowed down as if in prayer.
The 40-year-old blues singer is a mother now, to 2-year-old Johnny Lee Copeland, named in honor of her late father, guitarist and singer Johnny Clyde Copeland.
“He’s been walking since he was 9½ months, and I’ve been chasing him since 9½ months,” Copeland says with a laugh from her home in Chicago.
On Sunday, Copeland will appear at the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom, where she will open for the Robert Cray Band on a bill that also features Mark Cohn and the Blind Boys of Alabama. The following interview was adapted from a cover story about Copeland that first appeared last fall in Blues Music Magazine.
“America’s Child” is Copeland’s eighth album and second since returning to Alligator Records in 2015 with the Grammy-nominated “Outskirts of Love.” After working with musician and producer Oliver Wood for her last three albums, she enlisted guitarist Will Kimbrough, whom she met through Wood.
“He is a genius. It was a very organic start to a relationship. Oliver Wood, who I love and adore and produced three of my records, asked him to come in on the last record that he produced, which is “Outskirts (of Love),” Copeland says. “He asked him to come and play on the record. And that’s how we kind of formed that relationship.”
While the album is rooted in the blues, “America’s Child,” released last August, crosses into Americana, with songs laced with bluegrass and country and a roster of guest musicians that include John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Rhiannon Giddens and Mary Gauthier. For Copeland, who recorded the sessions in Nashville, it all felt second nature.
“The one thing I love about this record and the guests is that they’re so unexpected,” Copeland says. “And it wasn’t about what genre they sang in. It was just a love of music and a respect for each other. Emmylou Harris is singing on the record. I mean are you kidding me?”
A few of the songs tackle political and social issues, beginning with the rocker “Ain’t Got Time for Hate,” written by Kimbrough and Copeland’s long-time manager John Hahn, who served as executive producer and co-wrote six songs. While Copeland leaves the songwriting to others, her relationship with Hahn ensures she’ll be working with material she can make her own.
“People always ask me what the songwriting process is like for me. I always say it’s like going to a tailor and having a suit made for you,” Copeland says. “I speak with John Hahn every day of my life, since I was a 8 years old. This is what we talk about, what’s happening. And we talk about the politics and religion and the music business. There’s nothing off limits, personal life issues and life-changing things. That’s how he comes up with this stuff. And it’s a wonderful thing.”
Becoming a mother has made a major impact on her worldview.
“It gives you more to strive for. They open up your mind and they open up your heart in ways that I never could have imagined,” Copeland says. “And this little guy, here, oh my gosh. The second I had him, my main thought was, ‘What kind of world have I just brought this child into? What are the things that he’s going to have to endure? And is it going to be even worse for him than it was for me?’ You just start thinking about all of those things.”
Among the topical hard-hitting songs on “America’s Child” is “Americans,” one of two songs co-written by Hahn with singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier. The song delivers its message with barbed humor as it catalogs the diverse people who make up the country, including a “loose-lipped librarian Republican contrarian,” an “Orthodox Baptist Jew wondering what would Jesus do,” a “transgender sugar daddy,” a “Mexican pinup girl” and some “people who just landed here.” And all are welcome.
“When I first heard the first verse of it I thought, ‘I love where this is going. It’s perfect.’” Copeland says. “We are a big melting pot of immigrants. And we should just love each other and accept each other and not have all of this drama. It’s just ridiculous. Not accepting immigrants into this country is sacrilege. This country was built up on immigrants. Should we do it the right way? Absolutely. But give people an opportunity. Give people a chance. This country was built on the backs of immigrants.”
“Americans,” which features Emmylou Harris on background vocals, is one of two co-written by Gauthier with Hahn. They also collaborated on “Smoked Ham and Peaches,” a country blues ballad anchored by Kimbrough’s National Guitar and Rhiannon Giddens’ banjo. The song’s refrain —“When the whole world’s fake, give me something real” — resonated with Copeland, whose restrained vocal is one of the album’s strongest performances.
“I think that’s it’s perfect for now because we’re all here in America getting dealt a handful of crap 24/7, whether it’s from politicians, whether it’s from media,” Copeland says. “It’s like, can we get back to what’s real? Can we get back to the basics? That’s what we want, and that’s what we need here.”
John Prine’s contribution to the album, “Great Rain,” is a bluesy mid-tempo song co-written with Michael Campbell. After the song ends, you can hear Prine and Copeland in a celebratory moment. “All right. Take the rest of the day off,” he says.
“First of all, I’m standing in the studio with John Prine. This guy is a living legend, and here he is singing one of his songs on my record. I was in complete disbelief,” Copeland says. “We all had smiles on our faces. We all looked like Mr. Kool-Aid running around. We couldn’t stop smiling. We were so happy.”