It might seem like Shemekia Copeland’s fate was determined the day she was born. But it actually took some time for her to find her way to the stage.
Copeland, daughter of blues guitarist and singer Johnny Clyde Copeland, told Pollstar she grew up in a house bursting with music.
“My father was born in Homer, La., and he grew up in Texas,” Copeland explained. “There were so many different styles of music – lots of gospel, lots of country. And my mom was from the South, so she was listening to Joe Tex and Johnnie Taylor. Growing up was a great time for me.
“Lots of musicians came in and out of my house. Half the time I didn’t even know who these guys were. Because you’re a little girl and great, amazing musicians are coming to your house and you don’t even know them.”
Although she was fine singing at home with family and friends, Copeland said she initially had no desire to do it for a living.
“I saw that it was not an easy life,” she said. “You don’t have to be brilliant to know that. I saw my dad going through all kinds of struggles. He would go out on tour for months and months and come back with nothing. I thought, ‘What the hell is that?’ He worked so, so hard.
“I didn’t think that I’d ever want to be in this business – being on stage terrified me. I was like, ‘Oh God, no. People watching me?’ Now it’s my favorite part.”
So what changed her mind? Family.
“I always say I got a calling, because everything just happened so fast,” she said. “My dad’s health started to fail, so I started to go out with him. I started by opening, singing two songs. Then I started doing the whole first set if we were playing in a club. I just fell in love with it. I started to really get into it and enjoy doing it. When he died, I wanted to do it more so than ever.”
One person who had a clue Copeland was destined for the stage is her manager, John Hahn, who met her when she was a child.
“I’ve known Shemekia since she was 8 years old,” Hahn told Pollstar. “I had just produced a record for her father – and once you know the Copelands, you’re part of the family. I was invited to Johnny’s birthday party and I met her.
“She called a couple of her 8-year-old cronies over and said, ‘This is Mr. John Hahn and he’s my manager.’ All the adults, including myself, laughed. I stopped laughing about 10 years ago when she was opening for The Rolling Stones.
“I wrote my first song for her when she was 10. She used to be invited onstage by her dad periodically in her early teens. But it wasn’t until her dad got sick that she would go out on tour with him.
“She says that at the time she thought she was helping him out but now she can see that he was helping her out.”
Once Copeland decided she was comfortable on stage, she took to the road with a vengeance, performing more than 150 shows a year, headlining blues festivals around the world and sharing stages with legends like Buddy Guy, B.B. King and Taj Mahal.
Her dedication to the genre and her passion for spreading it have led many to speculate she’ll be stepping into the void left by Koko Taylor’s death to emerge as the new Queen of the Blues.
And while Copeland is humbly trying to get comfortable with that title, she has a bigger goal in mind – helping to transform and expand the blues.
Her latest album, Never Going Back, goes a long way toward achieving that aim with help from producer Oliver Wood and guest appearances by Medeski, Martin & Wood’s Chris Wood and John Medeski. The disc also features an unexpected cover, Joni Mitchell’s “Black Crow.”
“I believe that artists have to evolve and grow and I definitely want the blues to do the same,” Copeland explained. “Oliver had a much younger, fresher take on the music. He made me do pretty much the opposite of what I’d been doing. I came from people who sang, just opened up and sang. He basically told me not to.”
Copeland’s agent, Monterey International’s Patrick McAuliff, told Pollstar he supports her in her quest.
“Shemekia is taking the blues forward and putting her own stamp on the genre,” McAuliff said. “She’ll definitely continue in Koko’s path. But she wants to keep pushing the blues and not just keep making the same record over and over.
“She’s completely blossomed. I just saw her a couple of weekends ago and it was amazing to see her out there enjoying herself and the audience enjoying her just as much.”
Among the audiences enjoying Copeland are U.S. troops in the Middle East. Last fall she traveled to Iraq and Kuwait with the USO-style Bluesapalooza tour and has plans to visit Afghanistan next year. The singer said the experience was a profound one.
“When you see things like that, your ideas change,” she said. “I thought I was gonna need therapy when I came back home because you want to do something. I felt like all I did was go over there for two weeks and sing for those guys. They couldn’t have appreciated it more.”
Copeland is on the road for much of the rest of the year, including a month-long tour of Turkey in October. In December, she’ll take a little break to marry her fiancé, Orlando Wright, a bassist in Buddy Guy’s band.