Shemekia Copeland & Kenny Wayne Shepherd: Hitting Back with Love

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Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Shemekia Copeland

(Photo: Jimmy and Dena Katz)

What does the blues mean to Kenny Wayne Shepherd?

“Blues to me represents healing and celebration,” he said. Wearing a black T-shirt and matching Stetson hat, he was speaking over Zoom from a tour stop in Rochester, New York. “Originally, the blues was birthed out of some very difficult times, but I think it evolved into something that is really about healing, and getting through whatever life’s challenges are — getting to the other side, and then celebrating,” he explained.

“And for me, when I write and record music, I try to focus on more of a positive message, because so many of my heroes, whether it’s Muddy [Waters], or John Lee Hooker, or Albert King, when you listen to them play, you feel something here,” he said, placing his hand over his heart. “But the end result is it brings a smile to my face, you know? It just makes me feel good. It’s not about self-loathing. It’s not about sitting around complaining all the time. It’s about human beings relating, on the journey of life that we all are experiencing together, one day at a time.

“At least, that’s what I believe modern blues has evolved into.”

“I agree with Kenny,” Shemekia Copeland chimed in. Also dressed in black (but sans chapeau), she joined the discussion from her home in Oceanside, California. “The blues is definitely a healer. It helps to bring people together, and you can tell your story. That’s what I love about it. No matter what your story is, you can tell it through this music, and that’s what we both do in our different ways.”

Those different ways came together in a recent single, “Hit ’Em Back.” Combining Copeland’s powerhouse vocals with Shepherd’s growling guitar, and spiced with some searing pedal steel from Robert Randolph, the single takes on the contentiousness of contemporary American life — but with a twist.

As Shepherd and the band grind through an ominous, minor-key blues progression, Copeland sings, “Everyone’s fighting/ They takin’ sides/ You just want to run and hide.” It’s an apt description of today’s polarized politics, and sounds true from either side of the partisan divide. But the chorus counters with an uplifting feint: “Hit ’em back, hit ’em back/ Hit ’em right back with love.”

It’s the sort of sentiment listeners might expect more from the church pulpit, instead of a blues song — and it’s that didn’t-see-it-coming twist, combined with the righteous power of Copeland’s singing, that gives the song its punch.

“Down South, where I’m from, people are trying to draw lines in the sand and choose sides,” Shepherd said. “It was ugly, you know? So, instead of trying to divide us, Shemekia reached out to me, and we decided we wanted to express a message of unity. Because in our community, the people who make the music, we all get along, and we all respect each other, because we spent time together and know where each other is coming from.”

“Absolutely,” Copeland agreed. “Kenny and I have known each other for a long time, but we both do very different things and we’re very different artists. And I think that coming together to do a song like this just showed that none of that matters, because it’s about the music, and the genuine love and respect for each other and what we do. I think it showed people none of that other stuff matters. We can come together and do it because we’re cool like that.”

Where Shepherd specializes in steady-rockin’ blues like “Blue On Black” (a 1998 hit reprised on 2020’s Straight To You: Live At Rockplast), Copeland has become known for the socially conscious lyrics in her music, starting with “We Ain’t Got Time For Hate,” from her 2018 album America’s Child.

“The next album I did was called Uncivil War,” she said. Inspired by the political divisions and racial tension of post-Trump America, it was less a protest album than a plea for peace and reconciliation. As the title tune — written by her manager, John Hahn, and tunesmith Will Kimbrough — put it, “How long must we fight this uncivil war?”

“Hit ’Em Back” follows from that. “Somehow, people are still not getting it, cause everybody’s still fighting and there’s still so much division,” she said. “It’s annoying. And it was happening to the blues community, which, oh my god, just broke my heart.” Hahn intended the lyrics for Copeland’s next album, but when she heard them, she thought, “I got to do this with Kenny. So we reached out to Kenny, and he did the music, and it was like magic. It just it was so organic the way it happened, so fast. It was meant to be.”

Shepherd worked up the chords and a vocal melody, and cut a demo for Copeland. “I’m not a singer like Shemekia, right?” he said. “Like, I’m embarrassed to even send this over to her. But it was cool to watch the whole thing come to life. When she marched in that studio that day, she had a purpose. She went in and completely knocked my socks off. Everybody in there was at the top of their game, we had the best musicians in the room, and she rose above it all. I mean, she just destroyed that vocal on that song.”

A few weeks after our Zoom chat, Shepherd and Copeland would play a handful of dates together in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. But at the time of the interview, they hadn’t yet performed “Hit ’Em Back” together live.

“We’ve got a lot of plans to get together and do this,” Copeland said. “It’s going to happen.”

“Life has a way of adjusting everybody’s best-laid plans,” added Shepherd. “But I’m sure there’ll be many opportunities in the future for us to do it together.” For now, though, both artists are trying to balance the excitement of finally getting back out on the road with the reality of concert booking in the age of COVID.

“I was supposed to go on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, and I couldn’t go on because I tested positive for COVID,” Copeland said. “I’ve done shows when I’ve felt much worse, and been a whole lot sicker on stage. But I tested positive for COVID, so I wasn’t getting on that ship.”

“A lot of these shows we’re doing right now were shows that we had booked for 2020,” Shepherd said. “At every city, it’s a different scenario. In some cities, anybody can come and it’s like nothing ever happened. And then in other cities, you got testing and proof of vaccination and mask requirements. And some people were OK with that. Some people are not OK with that. But thank god musicians are getting back to work. And it’s not just musicians. It’s the crew people, it’s the bus drivers. It’s the truck drivers that that haul all the equipment. It’s the security. People that work at the venues, in the box office. The venue managers. All these people, man. I’ve just been dying to get back to work, and so it’s good to see some of that happen.”

Still, with an extended amount of COVID time off, both artists must have done a lot of woodshedding, right?

“I don’t think so,” Copeland said, with a laugh. “I went right into mommy mode. I was baking cookies and bread, and gardening and shit. I wasn’t doing anything musical at all. It was weird. I don’t think I had the discipline [to practice] because I had been working ever since I was a kid. Pretty much every week from forever, other than some holidays. It was just like I had a year-and-a-half off.”

“I was a lot like Shemekia,” Shepherd said. “I was playing with my kids way more than I was playing with my guitar. And it’s the same thing. I toured so much my whole life that my routine was that when I would come off the road, I didn’t sit around and play guitar. I mean, I have six kids and a wonderful wife, and I would dedicate myself to my family. So I was not playing a lot of guitar for almost two years.

“But, thankfully, I was able to jump right back into it. I was a little nervous the day we were in the studio to do ‘Hit ’Em Back.’ I told [Shemekia], ‘Man, I don’t know how this is going to go, because it has been so long.’ But you get amongst everybody, and the energy takes over, the adrenaline, and everybody rises up.” DB



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July 2022
Sean Jones
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