John Lamb, Published July 23 2012
Queen of the Blues Shemekia Copeland headlines this year’s Fargo Blues Festival
She’s singing out, speaking up and taking her musical message out on the road.
Copeland visits her Midwest constituents with a headlining set Friday night at the 17th Annual Fargo Blues Festival.
While that’s a nice feather in the hat for the now 33-year-old, it’s nothing compared to a high-profile show earlier this year.
In February she played the star-studded “Red White and Blues” at the White House, performing with Mick Jagger and Gary Clark Jr., and sharing the stage with Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi and more.
“There have been so many great things so far this year, but I’d have to say the highlight was performing at the White House for our president and Mrs. Obama and singing onstage with Mick Jagger,” Copeland says. “All of those things are pretty freaking awesome.”
When she was offered the gig, she thought it was a joke. Even when she was rehearsing with the other stars, she said it felt unreal until she arrived at the White House.
The feeling was shared by others, she says, recalling what 75-year-old singer/guitarist Buddy Guy said while waiting in a receiving line to meet the president.
“ ‘I can’t believe this. From the cotton fields to the White House,’ ” she recalls Guy saying.
“And that hit me hard because he’s been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and has Grammys, and he’s this huge star, and even for him it was an amazing experience being at the White House,” Copeland says.
Guy may have been humbled, but he still had the sway to get President Obama to sing, “Sweet Home Chicago” to close out the event.
“He’s better than some of these folks trying to sing,” Copeland says of the crooner in chief.
Copeland grew up around Guy and other blues artists, friends of her late father, Texas blues singer/guitarist Johnny Copeland. Now she refers to Guy as an “uncle.”
She says having those veteran performers in her life as she started performing provided a good influence. They would tell her, “You started out so young, we didn’t know what was going to happen to you.”
“So many people fall into bad habits, and I had a good support system,” she says, though she admits Guy still pushes her.
“He doesn’t take it easy on me,” the blues belter says.
He may not take it too easy, but he help makes her sound good on her upcoming record “33 1/3.”
When the disc comes out in September, it will not only be a reference to her age at the time, but also her musical heritage and growing up on vinyl records.
She says each of her six albums to date has reflected where she was in her life and her seventh only broadens her view. Between her last album and “33 1/3” Copeland visited troops in Iraq and traveled the world seeing, “things that some American people are very afraid of.”
All of which comes out on the new disc, which opens up with “Lemon Pie,” about the diminishing reality of living the American dream, like owning a home.
“That’s not what our ancestors worked for,” she says.
“I honestly believe the reason some people are not forward thinking is that they’re stuck in the ‘Mississippi Mud,’ ” she says, referencing another song on the disc. “People are so set in their ways, they don’t want to move forward or evolve. They want to stay in their old way, and the old way hasn’t really worked for us and it won’t work for us because the world is changing.”
Even religious zealots get a mouthful from the Queen of the Blues.
“You have these crazy people who think they’re so religious and they believe in God, but it’s not the God I believe in. That’s why I like the song ‘Somebody Else’s Jesus,’ ” she says.
While she speaks her mind, she doesn’t plan on using the stage as a soapbox. Still, she doesn’t think artists should shy away from sharing their views.
“Since the beginning of time people have wanted to hear what artists had to say. Otherwise Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles wouldn’t be successful,” she says. “People wanted to hear what they said and know what they thought.”
With 16 years in the business, Copeland is getting more comfortable sharing her thoughts.
“When I was 19, 20, 21 years old, I had opinions, but who the hell wants to hear them from somebody who is just out of the womb?” she says. “As I get older, I’ve been paying taxes for a long time now. I can say how I feel.”
This is to be expected from the Queen of the Blues, a title she considers a major honor, but one she still associates with the previous title-holder, the late Koko Taylor.
“The one thing Cookie (Taylor, Koko Taylor’s daughter) said to me when she gave me the crown was that she doesn’t expect me to be Koko or Etta (James) or Ruth (Brown),” Copeland says. “She wants me to be me and I’ve been doing a good job of that. And that’s how I feel about it. I’m just going to do me and never ever forget that the reason that I’m here doing it is those ladies who came before me.”
If You Go
WHAT: Fargo Blues Festival
WHEN: Friday and Saturday
WHERE: Newman Outdoor Field, 1515 15th Ave. N., Fargo
TICKETS: Two-day tickets are $35. Single-day passes are $25. (218) 287-7775
2 p.m. – Blues Tonic
3 p.m. – Everett Smithson Band
4:15 p.m. – Harper and Midwest Kind
5:30 p.m. – Smokin’ Joe Kubek & Bnois King
7 p.m. – Ronnie Baker Brooks
Noon – The Levee
1:30 p.m. – Bluedog Blues Band
3 p.m. – Lightnin’ Malcom Band
4:30 p.m. – Eddie Shaw & The Wolfgang
6 p.m. – Bernard Allison
8 p.m. – James Cotton
Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533