Blues singer Shemekia Copeland considers her music a calling. There was a time when she’d rather do anything else but perform for an audience. Now she makes her living by sharing blues music from the stage for listeners across the globe. She’s even performed for the Obamas at the White House. This Friday, she’ll be headlining the opening night of the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation’s City-wide Tinner Hill Blues Festival with a performance at The State Theatre.
At first she fought the desire to perform. She was no stranger to the blues and to the performing life growing up. She’s the daughter of Texas blues guitarist Johnny Copeland. She listened to the blues, but also gospel, country, and soul in her musical household growing up. Otis Redding and Sam Cooke made an early impact; so did Patsy Cline. The music of the “Queen of the Blues” Koko Taylor also influenced Copeland. In her 30s, she received the “Queen of the Blues” title at the Chicago Blues Festival from Taylor’s daughter, but as a teen she battled shyness and resisted a career in performing.
Copeland was about 16 when her father’s health started to decline. It was about the same time that he took her on the road as his opening act. She thinks those circumstances may have had a lot to do with her launching a career as a performer. Whatever the reason, the desire came on strong.
“It just hit me,” Copeland says. “It hit me like a ton of bricks, that this is what you’re supposed to be doing.”
She lacked confidence early on, Copeland says, but she had her father’s support as she started out. He died of complications from a heart surgery when she was 18 years old. But before he passed, she got to know him better as she toured with him in the final years of his life, and she got to know the business. Her transformation into self-assured blues performer had begun.
“Now I love performing more than just about anything,” Copeland says. The shyness got better with age, she says; the older you get, the more you come to appreciate yourself and your talents.
“You’re like, ‘all right, this is what God gave me to work with, this is my package, so I’m going to be grateful for it and love it and share it with the rest of the world,’” Copeland says.
Since her early start, she’s performed at blues festivals like the one she’ll be playing here in the City of Falls Church.
“The blues artists who are out there are truly grateful for these outlets to be able to perform the music that we love,” Copeland says. As a fan of blues music, she’s disappointed she won’t be able to enjoy seeing other acts at the festival, but her June schedule is packed with performances. She’ll be playing in Pennsylvania the night following her State Theatre show, and after three straight shows next week she’ll head to France at the end of the month for some other festival performances.
In addition to touring internationally, Copeland continues to record and release albums. Her most recent, 33 1/3, earned a Grammy nomination for best blues album. It’s been nearly two years since the album came out, but Copeland is in no hurry to release another.
“I like to take my time, let life happen and see where it goes and what I want to say. What I put out into the universe is very important to me, so I want to take my time and do it right,” Copeland says. We’ll see what happens.”
• For more information about Shemekia Copeland, visit shemekiacopeland.com.