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Blues with a feeling

Shemekia Copeland spreads the blues


For those of her generation who don't want to hear the blues, 25-year-old Shemekia Copeland has harsh words. "I say you should kill 'em." She's joking. Daddy Johnny Clyde taught her better than that. Daughter Shemekia has become a worldwide ambassador for the blues. "I'm always very happy to have young people come out to my show, and I'm always telling people that I meet about it. And in my experience, the young people that do hear it, they like it. They're just not exposed to it."

Then there's the problem some older African Americans have with blues. "My mother never wanted to hear the blues," says Copeland, who'll perform Saturday at Stewart Theatre as part of a blue review with Charlie Musselwhite and Dr. John. "She didn't like blues because she was in the cotton field and she just associated it with a time in her life that was not good. But she doesn't have to pick cotton anymore."

The music has evolved, but Copeland finds that a lot of blues fans as well as journalists don't want the music to change. "In order for it to grow, it has to evolve, to change. I have never picked cotton a day in my life, so I'm not singing about that. I'm singing about stuff that I know about."

She's been pretty successful. Since her debut at age 18 with '77s Turn the Heat Up, Copeland has seen her work rewarded with four W.C. Handy Awards and a Grammy nomination for her 2000 follow-up, Wicked. For her last release, the Dr. John-produced Talking to Strangers, she went in a different direction with a fuller, more soulful sound than before--and a large dose of funk.

"I heard Creole Moon, one of Dr. John's latest records, and I thought, man, this is really cool. This is what I want my record to sound like."

That sound will be well represented in the upcoming show. Dr. John's band, The Lower 911, is the back-up band for all three artists.

The event is being sponsored by PineCone. Though having Dr. John as the headliner with an organization know for its roots-based concerts may seem a bit strange, there is a tie-in, says PineCone member William Lewis. "It's all Southern traditional music. At least it feeds into that same vein."

He acknowledges that Dr. John's influences are all over the map, but the cultural tributaries all drain back into the New Orleans bayou. Mississippi-born Charlie Musselwhite included Memphis and Chicago in his blues-collecting travels. Although Copeland grew up in Harlem, her biggest musical influence was her guitarist father who developed his style in Houston in the '50s playing with Albert Collins and Freddie King.

"So they all represent different veins of blues music and how it's traveled across the U.S.," Lewis says. "It all feeds back into their Southern heritage, and I think that's where we pick up on it."

Meanwhile, Copeland is stretching the boundaries of blues. Her next record will be produced by Steve Cropper, guitarist/producer/writer of soul hits for artists including Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding as well as producing Jeff Beck and John Prine. "I wanted to do a soul record, and Cropper's the guy for that." Asked if she means old school soul, she's quick to clarify her intentions. "That's right, baby! That's black soul! The good stuff! I'm not talking about neo soul! What is that? Almost soul? I'm talking about Otis Redding!"

Dr. John & The Lower 911, Shemekia Copeland and Charlie Musselwhite play Saturday, Oct. 23 at Stewart Theatre on the NCSU campus. The show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $32 for the public, $25 for PineCone members and $15 for students.

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