Soul Woman 

With help from Stax's Steve Cropper, Shemekia Copeland pushes the boundaries of the blues.

She's just 26 years old, but Shemekia Copeland can belt out the blues like a woman years beyond her age. As the daughter of the late guitar great Johnny Copeland, she's heir to a formidable musical legacy. She's already got three albums under her belt; she's performed with her heroes, blues divas like Ruth Brown and Koko Taylor; and she's racked up an armful of W.C. Handy Awards.

Copeland, however, isn't one to rest.

As we talk, Copeland is traveling from New York City, where she cut a live version of her new single "Who Stole My Radio?" for Sirius Satellite Radio, to her home in rural Pennsylvania. Even on the move, she's meeting with her manager, reviewing upcoming tour dates, and looking over promotional efforts for her latest album, The Soul Truth, which was released in August. Once home, she'll get to spend a few days with her boyfriend, then she'll pack for Memphis, where she's playing the Coffeehouse Concert Series at the Buckman Performing & Fine Arts Center on Sunday, October 16th.

"Right now, I'm about to begin a whole month of touring," Copeland says with a sigh. "We'll break for the holidays, then we'll hit it hard again next year."

On The Soul Truth, she sings, "You've got to be strong enough for both of us," but Copeland obviously possesses the stamina of an old-time Beale Street shouter like Bessie Smith. Clearly, she thrives on the road, where her concerts draw thousands of devoted fans. She's a staple on the blues festival circuit.

But like most blues artists, Copeland is in a continual battle to reinvigorate the old genre, and she is constantly striving to find her own voice.

Her impressive debut, 1998's Turn the Heat Up, relied on a boisterously modern electric blues style, a la Etta James, and its follow-up, Wicked, kept her on the same path. Her 2002 release, Talking to Strangers, provoked comparisons to New Orleans singer Irma Thomas -- an apt assessment, since the legendary Crescent City pianist Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John, produced the album. Next, Memphian Steve Cropper came on board for The Soul Truth, which was recorded at Nashville's Insomnia Studios with such classic-rock and soul standouts as Rolling Stones pianist Chuck Leavell, organist Felix Cavaliere (of the Rascals), and the Muscle Shoals Horns.

Cropper's production work is a perfect blend of Stax-era Memphis soul and funky Muscle Shoals-styled roots music -- a sound he honed as guitarist for Booker T. & the MGs, then refined in his solo career and his work with the Blues Brothers. Providing a refreshingly gutbucket guitar backdrop for Copeland's sultry, steamy voice, he accentuates every hip shake with a horn punch and buoys her indomitable spirit with the pounding chords of a church organ.

"Recording with Steve was completely different from working with Dr. John," Copeland readily admits. "They're both extremely talented, soulful cats, but Dr. John was a lot more laid-back. Cropper's got a lot more energy happening. When we decided to do a soul album, we went straight to him."

Tracks on the album run the gamut from Aretha Franklin-inspired anthems (the feisty "Breakin' Out") to slow-burning lover's laments ("Poor, Poor Excuse"). Copeland's agile pipes get a real workout on "Who Stole My Radio?" and "Honey Do That Voo-Doo," while "You Can't Have That" injects plenty of boogie-woogie blues into the mix. Cropper downshifts on versions of Bekka Bramlett's ballad "Used," made famous by country singer Lorrie Morgan, and Eddie Hinton's "Something Heavy," rendered in a stripped-down version reminiscent of Muscle Shoals alumnus Tony Joe White.

"I don't mind being a blues artist. I'm proud of it. That's where I came from. But unfortunately, we live in a world where everybody wants to put you into a box," Copeland says of recent criticism from staunch traditionalists who fear her current course.

"The sad thing, what I'm trying to change, is that the big guys who promote [blues music] are the ones who try to hold it back. Blues music should evolve. It needs to grow like all the other genres of music, like country or gospel. It's important to keep it fresh, to keep bringing young ears to the blues."

She maintains that she purveys "good music," regardless of being pigeonholed as a blues singer -- a theory she's happy to prove at the Coffeehouse Concert Series this Sunday.

"I'd definitely like to reach a larger audience, and in my lifetime, I'd like to see blues music evolve and grow," she concludes, "although there's not much I can do about that, except [to] keep doing what I am doing."

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