For Shemekia Copeland, 33 1/3 Could Be Her Lucky Number

From the start, Shemekia Copeland stood out as a fiery female shouter in a modern blues sea of male guitarslingers, her late father Johnny Copeland being a particularly well-respected one.

A decade and a half into her decorated recording career, she still hasn’t cozied up to the status quo in her genre. For two albums in a row — including the Grammy-nominated 33 1/3 — she’s worked with producer-songwriter Oliver Wood (of the Wood Brothers) and keenly expanded the palette of her expression.

CMT Edge: The traditional and contemporary blues album categories were combined last year. Winners in both of those categories tended to be male performers. What did you make of the fact that the majority of this year’s nominees are women?

Copeland: I think it’s great. I think it’s about time they started to recognize the women in this business.

You’ve been recording since you were 19 and performing even longer than that, plus you saw your father’s blues career up close. Has your perspective on what a blues career can look like and where you fit in the musical landscape changed over the years?

I’ve grown with my albums. For me, that’s been wonderful. This latest album is my best work. I’m so proud of it. … I love that me and my team, we’ve actually figured out a way to take blues music and make it contemporary through subject matter and through the message. That’s what I’ve been trying to do with the music.

As I get older, these topics that I want to talk about, I feel like I can. When you’re young, it doesn’t matter that you have an opinion because nobody wants to hear it. Nobody cares what you have to say. When you’re 30-something and you’ve been paying taxes and doing your thing for years, people have to listen because you’ve been out here and you’ve been doing it. I love that part of it. It feels good. So if there’s something that I want to talk about — like politics, like religion, like domestic violence and all the things that we’re touching on, on this album — I do. I’m super proud of it. I mean, super proud.

It’s not that blues material has never been socially relevant. But, by and large, the most popular topics now are what’s going right or wrong between a man and a woman. For you to make a conscious effort to talk about other things definitely stands out.

Right. It’s very important. It’s awesome to get nominated for awards, and it’s awesome to get the radio play and all those things, but for me, I feel good about what I am doing, and I feel good about my message. As I travel and go out on the road, people are getting it.

Most every night now that’s what I’m hearing: “I love ‘Somebody Else’s Jesus’ because you’re talking about religious people who are just trying to get folks’ money.” … “‘Ain’t Gonna Be Your Tattoo’– what a great way to say you’re not taking anybody’s crap anymore.” This is what other people are saying to me, and it really feels good because it’s like, “OK, they get what I’m trying to say.”

You’ve been embracing different song sources over the past two albums, like Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Buddy and Julie Miller. What’s made you want to interpret their material?

I have never considered myself a great songwriter because I think there’s a difference between people who write songs and songwriters. … The people that I like to cover are great songwriters. Dylan, great songwriter. Joni Mitchell, great songwriter. Innovative and different. And I love that.

Theoretically, you could find fine songwriters in other genres. Was there anything that turned your attention in the folk and Americana direction specifically?

The true and honest answer is that I have been a huge Dylan fan all my life and a huge Joni Mitchell fan all my life. But never would I have ever covered any of their songs. That’s why you have a good producer. Oliver Wood was the one who said, “Do you know the song ‘Black Crow’?” And I’m like, “Yeah. I love that song. I never would’ve thought about doing it, though. Ever.” Because I didn’t think that I could. … It’s funny, because as much as I love Sam Cooke — and that’s actually one of the first voices I ever heard — I don’t think I ever would’ve covered him either. Because a lot of people do, that’s one. And two, it’s like trying to do an Aretha song. She already did the shit out of it. You don’t want to mess with it if you’re smart.

Speaking of songs identified with other performers, were you sold on “Can’t Let Go” by Lucinda Williams’ version?

Yeah. It was such a great song. I don’t often do too many songs that put women in a vulnerable position, and I wanted to attack something like that. … Especially since I’m kicking the crap out of everybody in my other songs, you know. (laughs)

A lot of my songs are to put women in a position of power. I love doing that because there are tons of male artists out here doing songs from a male perspective. So here I am doing songs from a female perspective. When I’m doing it, I want to uplift women in all ways but never ever insulting men or putting men down, because, gosh, we love them. I want them to know that: “Look, we love you. We’re just not gonna take your crap.” (laughs)

It’s not just what you’re singing but how you’re singing that’s changed on these last two albums. It’s deep in the third track on 33 1/3 before you let loose vocally, and that used to be the thing people expected from you.

Exactly. Everybody knows the part of me that’s the wailer, the big, huge voice. I’ve been doing that for 20 years. So it’s like, “Now let me show that I can do something different.” That’s what we did on the last record, and that’s what we did on this one. So it still has me using my voice in that way, but also doing other things, showing a different side of my voice, which I didn’t even know I had until the last album when I did “Black Crow.”

I’m learning that you can get a song across without the wailing. When you come from that school of the wailers, and that’s what you listen to, you think that’s the only way. I know that there are so many singers that don’t do that at all, and people understand them. But it’s [a different thing] to get it through my head that people will get me that way, as well, that I can do it, too. It feels good. And it’s so great for the set because it’s a shock, you know?

When did you first start thinking about what you do as hearkening back to the era of blues divas and going against the grain of the male guitar god thing that’s been the dominant blues model?

I know when [that shift in the blues] happened. It was like when they plugged in, that was it for female singers. In the ‘20s and ‘30s, it was all about women and entertainment and getting out there. And now you have all these guitar players that just stand up there and stare at their shoes. The entertainment aspect of it is gone. And it’s really sad. It’s almost like a cult of people that want to hear guys stand there and play loud guitar.

For me, I’m just happy to be out here doing what I am doing because it’s a good mix — a good mix of entertainment, blues, lyrics. My show is like a rollercoaster. You have ups. You have downs. We want to make you laugh. We want to make you cry. We want to make you feel warm and fuzzy.

You started taking vocal lessons somewhere along the way. Did that happen before these last two albums?

Yes, it did. I took voice lessons for preservation more than anything. I want to be doing this when I’m, you know, 80. I still want to have my chops at that time. I wanted to learn how to scream or yell or whatever, do what I’m doing without hurting myself in any kind of way. … I want to give myself the best chance of survival because I gotta be out here a long time. You ain’t no one-hit wonder when you’re doing blues music.

I read an old interview during which you mentioned you’d been listening to a lot of Bonnie Raitt. Do you see her as a link between blues sensibilities and singer-songwriter material?

Bonnie’s a great mix of all things. I mean, she’s got folk, she’s got blues, she’s got Americana. She’s just a great mix of a bunch of different genres mixed in with a crapload of talent and a great voice. Her voice is exceptional. She’s definitely pretty awesome. I think most of us model our careers after hers. She worked so hard to get to where she is. A lot of people would say that her success didn’t happen until she was in her 40s. It’s like, “OK, I still have time for something good to happen to me in my career.” (laughs)