Album Review: Shemekia Copeland – Uncivil War

After her brilliant 2018 album America’s Child, blues singer Shemekia Copeland continues her blistering take on the state of her country with her new album Uncivil War. Working again with Will Kimbrough and her longtime collaborator John Hahn has resulted in a timely collection of protest songs about the way we live now.

Shemekia’s voice is powerful and she has a unique ability to convey a message of unity and strength. She comes from a traditional blues upbringing but her music encompasses rock, soul and country elements – the epitome of what Americana music is and should be. Bringing together these musical genres into one diverse umbrella like ‘Americana’ means we can move away from historically segregated classifications and bring attention to a wide range of wonderful artists in a new way. Let’s call it the Americana dream.

Clotida’s on Fire tells the story of a slave ship that came to America long after slavery was abolished. The song honours the shocking history of struggle faced by her ancestors and reminds us that we are all living with these ghosts. The song is powerful, direct and has some fierce guitar work from guest Jason Isbell.

Walk Until I Ride is about having dignity and strength in the face of oppression, the songs is aided beautifully by a gospel choir. A song for the hopeless and the hungry, about the power of marching and protest. You will find no anger here, only purpose.

The title track of this album Uncivil War is one of my favourite songs of the year – a truly beautiful meditation on current society, culture and politics. We all have to start working for the common good, even if that means meeting people in the middle. The year should make us all ask questions not just about how we want to live but how we want our society to be. Nobody wins in an Uncivil War, the only way forward is a truce, shaking hands, listening to each other, listening to songs like this which lead the way.

The rocker Money Makes You Ugly is a defiant rejection of capitalism and materialism. Her cover of ‘Under My Thumb’ transforms a sexist lyric into a song of female empowerment – like what Aretha once did with ‘Respect’. A band who made a career stealing from the blues are rightly put in their place by the current queen of the genre.

Apple Pie and a 45 is an anti-gun anthem, attacking the American tradition of bearing arms. She also covers Shawn Mullins’s ‘Give God the Blues’, a song that asks for unity and help from a higher level.

The album finishes with Love Song, a cover of a song by her blues legend dad Johnny Clyde Copeland. To end with something light, joyous, is a reminder of the importance of music and memories to see us through the darkness.

Maybe an artist like Shemekia doesn’t get the attention she deserves from the Americana scene because she’s not a songwriter, but that’s a mistake as she has a real talent for delivering songs with power and purpose. Uncivil War is a fantastic album, from an incredible performer who reminds us that working for peace is purpose in itself. There’s lots of blues left to sing in this world, that’s for sure, but together we can keep walking forward to a better world.

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