Mavis Staples, You Are Not Alone

Posted on September 15, 2010 by

Artist: Mavis Staples
Album: You Are Not Alone
Label: Anti 87061
Release Date: September 14, 2010
Genre: Gospel / Soul

One reason I’ve always been a fan of southern soul music is because of the rich gospel tradition for which it is based. I’m not a religious man, but the elements of gospel, the emotional conviction, the voices, the blues that creeps into a guitar lick, resonate with my person. I have reached a personal crossroads when I listen to gospel, because I enjoy it so but have no religious convictions.

But when I listen to Mavis Staples, whether with her family band or her solo efforts, I never really hear it as gospel music. I know the hits on Stax were secular, but the messages were mini morality plays. When I saw her live this summer at Lollapaooza I told my family that if anybody could turn me to the Lord, it would be Mavis. When Mavis sings I hear honesty and conviction.  I don’t hear religion.

This is Mavis’ third album for the Anti label. Her first was the 20007 Ry Cooder produced, We’ll Never Turn Back. I found it a little predictable in the song selection, I liked the addition of the SNCC Singers on a civil right album, but it sounded a lot like a Ry Cooder record with Mavis singing. She had her name on it but Ry was driving the vehicle. His presence was overpowering.

I have to hand it to Jeff Tweedy for his production on You Are Not Alone. This is Mavis’ record. He contributed two songs on the release but they don’t sound like Mavis singing Wilco songs. They sound like songs Tweedy wrote with Mavis in mind. The title track is as close as you’ll get to hearing something washed in Wilco. And Mavis cleans it up. It’s one of the highlights on the album.

The album further defines the sound from the previous album, Live: Hope At The Hideout, a sound based around her father’s guitar style, but it’s definitely not Pops. It ventures there, like in the opening track, a re-interpretation of “Don’t Knock.” But it doesn’t live there. Holmstrom’s style is influenced by Pops, but it’s heavier. It works well adding grit to the gospel. Along with Holmstrom, It’s the same band of Jeff Turmes on bass, and drummer Steven Hodges from the Hideout disc. Donny Gerrard was added as a vocalist, harmonizing and sharing a lead on a song Little Milton made famous, “We’re Gonna Make It.”

The re-working of “In Christ There is No East or West” turns the traditional number into a gospel-folk piece. Her reading of Fogerty’s ”Wrote a Song for Everyone” elevates the work to new heights. When sung through Mavis,

Saw the people standin’ thousand years in chains.
Somebody said it’s diff’rent now, look, it’s just the same.
Pharaohs spin the message, round and round the truth.
They could have saved a million people, How can I tell you?

It’s a message of civil rights instead of an observation from the Woodstock generation. The song should be listed among the best of Fogerty’s during his days with Creedence Clearwater Revival, but it didn’t chart as well in comparison to the canon of CCR hits.

Mavis Staples is an evangelist, and her songs are her personal messages of morality. And if civility, love and perseverance are the cornerstones of her beliefs, I could be a member of her congregation.

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