Reigning blues queen Shemekia Copeland delves deep into the divided heart and tarnished soul of America on her latest release, Uncivil War. The follow-up to her 2018 album, America’s Child, Copeland again teams up with Nashville guitarist/producer Will Kimbrough, who casts her signature vocal style into a spellbinding Americana brew. Assisting with this effort is an all-star cast featuring singer-guitarist Jason Isbell, rising young Delta blues guitarist Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, lap steel guitarist Jerry Douglas, bluegrass mandolinist Sam Bush, legendary Stax guitarist Steve Cropper (Booker T. & the M.G.’s), roots guitarists Duane “King of Twang” Eddy and Webb Wilder, plus The Orphan Brigade on background vocals.
A deeply personal and socially conscious project, Copeland probes the problems of the present as well as the past. Opening with “Clotilda’s on Fire,” she harnesses the full capabilities of the blues to tell the story of the last known ship to bring enslaved Africans to America’s shores in 1859, 50 years after the slave trade was banned. To hide the evidence of this heinous crime, the Clotilda was set on fire and sunk in Alabama’s Mobile River, where the hulk was recently discovered. As Copeland sings, “She was a dirty secret, God would not forgive it, but the shame was so great she could not stay hidden – she’s on fire,” Isbell dives in with an incendiary guitar solo that burns with intensity.
Drawing upon the freedom songs of the Civil Rights Movement, Copeland offers “Walk Until I Ride,” an anthem for the modern era combining a bluesy twist, country twang and rousing gospel choir. On the acoustic title track, “Uncivil War,” Copeland laments nearly two centuries of people inflicting “the same old wounds” as she sings, “Spirits are back in rag blue and grey, thought they were gone but they won’t go away.” Once again equating the racism and division of the past with the present, she asks, “Why can’t we all just get along …how long we must fight this uncivil war?”
Changing pace with the searing blues rock song, “Money Makes You Ugly,” Copeland explores the evils associated with excessive greed. Similarly, “Apple Pie and a .45” addresses another societal ill, the proliferation of firearms and gun violence, while “In the Dark” plumbs the emotional depths of confronting an unfaithful partner. On a more positive note, “Give God the Blues” expresses love for all of God’s children, saints and sinners alike, while driving rockabilly rhythms usher in “She Won’t Wear Pink,” which speaks to gender identities and respect for the LGBTQ community.
Two of the tracks on the album are dedicated to legendary musicians. With swinging second line rhythms, “Dirty Saint” pays homage to Dr. John, who produced and performed on Copeland’s third studio release, Talking to Strangers (2002). Shemekia closes the album with a poignant rendition of “Love Song,” composed by her late father, Texas bluesman Johnny Clyde Copeland. Backed by Kimbrough on guitar, she reverently sings about her familial love for the blues in this short but sweet tribute.
Uncivil War is a masterful effort by Shemekia Copeland, brimming with emotional intensity, ingenuity, and the unvarnished truth. Kimbrough’s production also deserves praise for illustrating that the blues genre, like society as a whole, can benefit from diversity and fresh perspectives.
Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss