On America's Child, singer Shemekia Copeland pivots ever so slightly but quite deliberately, from straight-ahead blues into more rootsy Americana. It's a smart move, infusing her album with an intimacy that supports a lyrical thread that can best be described as “things are tough right now but hopefully they'll get better.”
Copeland is a powerful blues singer, which makes sense given she's the daughter of bluesman Johnny Copeland. With a voice that's uniquely American, effortlessly moving between blues, country, and soul, she's more than capable of holding the listener's attention, however Copeland and producer Will Kimbrough front-load the album with guests. The first track, the very bluesy "Ain't Got Time for Hate," features background vocals from a ton of artists, including country legend Emmylou Harris and singer-songwriter John Prine. And six other artists. The backing vocals are fine, but Copeland doesn't need that much star power. You might not even notice the background vocals, if not for the liner notes. The effect is more of a cushy Sopranos-esque no-show job than genuine musical contribution.
Guests are used to much better effect on "Americans," which features Harris, as well as singer-songwriters Mary Gauthier and Katie Pruitt. Copeland syncopates over a simple drum beat and some charmingly ragged pedal steel. And here you can hear Harris' sweet, perfect voice popping through the mix, offering a welcoming warmth as Copeland's lyrics catalog the varying groups of people who are a part of the American tapestry, from immigrants to "a left-wing liberal geek / married to a red-neck freak."
Copeland also duets with Prine on a faithful cover of his own "Great Rain." Copeland's voice brings a youthful optimism while Prine sounds grizzled and more life-weary. Al Perkins provides a riveting guitar solo that stands out on an album full of top-notch guitar work. More of this guitar work can be heard on "Promised Myself," which features Stax Records guitar legend/one-time Copeland producer Steve Cropper. It's a slow blues written by her father, and it shows how timeless Copeland's voice is. The song could be from 2018 or 1968 or any time in between. It's just perfect.
Americana singer-instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens (better known as Hallie to those of us who are low-brow fans of the soap, Nashville) also joins Copeland on the album, providing African banjo on the charmingly folksy "Smoked Ham and Peaches," a track about appreciating the simple, and genuine, things in life. On an album heavy with white guest performers, it's nice to have more diverse representation.
Copeland's gentle shift from blues to Americana is significant for an African American artist. While there are people of color within the Americana scene, like Giddens, it's by-and-large a predominantly white field. Moving into the more country-music-adjacent side of soul/blues/rhythm-and-blues genres can be much more challenging for African American artists, Darius Rucker and Charley Pride aside. Copeland embraces the challenge, explicitly exploring race throughout the album, from "Ain't Got Time for Hate" ("Black and white / brown or tan / Every woman / child and man / Rich or poor / Gay and straight / We ain't got time for hate") to "Would You Take My Blood," a track challenging racists to consider if they would accept the donated blood of a black person.
But the point of America's Child isn't to examine the state of race in the contemporary United States. The purpose is to make great music, and Copeland accomplishes this while still making larger points about the world in which we all live. Copeland is an artist unafraid of challenging genres or social issues. There's something encouragingly patriotic about the endeavor.
Notable Tracks: “Americans” | “Great Rain” | “Promised Myself” | “Smoked Ham and Peaches”