By Eleni P, Austin
Mavis Staples has been a performer for more than 60 years. Even at age 73, she shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, it might be argued that she has made her most inspirational and rewarding music these last 10 years.
The Staple Singers began performing in Chicago in 1950. A true family affair, Mavis was joined by her sisters Cleotha and Yvonne, brother Pervis, and Dad, Roebuck “Pops” Staples on guitar.
Their musical style was steeped in the tradition of Gospel and Folk. As the years progressed they branched out adding their sanctified patina to Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall,” Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” and the Band’s “The Weight.” Not only did these more secular songs include spiritual subtext, each managed to mirror the struggles of the Civil Rights movement.
By 1968 the Staple Singers signed with the Stax/Volt label. Small in comparison to R&B hit machines like Motown and Atlantic, the Stax studio was a converted movie theatre in Memphis, Tennessee. Founded in 1957, it boasted an impressive roster of artists: Booker T. & The MGs, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Eddie Floyd, Johnny Taylor and Sam & Dave.
The Staple Singers found their greatest critical and commercial success on Stax. They placed eight songs in the Top 40, including “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself.” Their music was a potent combination: themes of self-empowerment and spiritual fulfillment cloaked in infectious soul-funk melodies.
The Staple Singers seemed to lose their footing in the Disco era. It was then that Mavis struck out on her own with a solo career. Through the 70s and 80s, her output was sporadic. In 1989 Prince signed her to his Paisley Park label and produced two albums… Time Waits For No One in 1989 and The Voice in 1993.
In 1996 she recorded an homage to her mentor, Spirituals & Gospels: A Tribute To Mahalia Jackson. It would be another eight years before her next album, Have A Little Faith arrived. The Staple Singers were inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 1999. Sadly, Pops Staples died from complications from a concussion in 2000.
In 2007, Mavis Staples signed with the Anti- label. An offshoot of the Punk indie label Epitaph, Anti- serves as a refuge for a disparate stable of artists. Neko Case, Bob Mould, Marianne Faithfull, Michael Franti, Beth Orton and Tom Waits are just a few of the musicians who left the confines of major labels for the freedom Anti- provides.
Mavis Staples’ first Anti- recording was We’ll Never Turn Back, a collection of Civil Rights era songs produced by Ry Cooder. Things really clicked in 2010, when Staples hooked up with producer Jeff Tweedy for her second Anti- effort, You Are Not Alone. The collaboration netted Staples her first Grammy in 2011.
Tweedy is best known for pioneering the alt-country sound in the late 80s with Jay Farrar in Uncle Tupelo. When that band imploded Tweedy bounced back with the more eclectic (and more successful) outfit, Wilco. Tweedy has also participated in side projects like Golden Smog and Loose Fur, as well as creating a soundtrack for the film “Chelsea Walls.”
Mavis Staples has teamed with Tweedy again for One True Vine. The album unfolds slowly with the opening track, “Holy Ghost.” It’s written by Alan Sparhawk from the Minnesota slowcore band Low. Spare and minimal, the song is a reflection on faith.
In its original form, “Can You Get To That” was a funk anthem from Parliament/Funkadelic mastermind George Clinton. Stripped of its pomp & circumstance, Tweedy employs the same acoustic arrangement that quirky L.A. quartet The Balancing Act used when they covered this song 25 years ago. Staples’ vocals emphasize the sacred duality of the lyrics.
The best tracks here are “Jesus Wept” and “Like The Things About Me.” The former is a Tweedy original clearly written with Staples in mind. The tune is a beautiful, minor key meditation on people who have passed on… “Side streets I’ve worn through late summer storms/ I should have told you I could live without you, but I don’t want to.” It’s mournful, but ultimately uplifting,
The latter is a Pops Staples tune, (continuing Mavis’ tradition of including a Pops song on each of her albums). Buzzy bass lines propel this healthy measure of self-acceptance. “There was a time when I wished my hair was fine, and I can remember when I wished my lips were thin/ But now I wonder why should I be surprised? I like the things about me that I once despised.” Tweedy provides guitar solo that twists and turns, skittering and distorted one minute and steeped in chicken-scratch funk the next.
Tweedy takes three Public Domain songs and retro-fits them to suit Mavis Staples’ strengths. “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today” is a Country-Folk ramble accented by euphonium, clarinet, saxophone and trumpet.
“Sow Good Seeds” locks into a sly back-porch groove powered by slide guitar and a handclap rhythm. Finally, “Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind On Jesus)” is fantastic ecclesiastic. Intertwining supple steel guitar with jangly acoustic fills provide a firm foundation for Staples’ sanctified exultations. You may need to keep a tambourine close at hand, in case the spirit moves you too.
Other interesting tracks include a cover of Nick Lowe’s chugging, “Celestial Shore.” The lyrics offer up this divine destination… “Way beyond the surly bonds of hate and love and war, on the far celestial shore.” Tweedy offers up another original, the gritty “Every Step.”
The album closes with the title track. The lyrics pay obeisance to a higher power… “I was lost and tired, you set me free from this mighty mighty mire.” The mood is sweet and conciliatory, anchored by sparse acoustic guitar and Gospel piano.
Mavis Staples has never displayed powerful vocal chops in the style of Aretha Franklin, or Patti LaBelle. But Staples has a masterful sense of phrasing and nuance. Her music has always walked a tightrope between the secular and the sacred. One True Vine continues this glorious tradition.