According to Wikipedia, “Mavis Staples is an American rhythm and blues and gospel singer, actress and civil rights activist who recorded with the Staple Singers, her family's band.” While that is all true, it doesn't come close to describing who Mavis Staples is. Mavis began singing with Roebuck "Pops" Staples and her siblings -- Cleotha, Yvonne, and Purvis -- when she was 11 years old, and the group hit the road once she graduated high school. The glorious sound created by the Staple Singers led people to dub them "God's Greatest Hitmakers." Though they came out of the church, in the 1960s, Pops' friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. pulled the family's music into the civil rights struggle, and they began singing songs that conveyed more overtly political messages.
Mavis's self-titled solo debut came in 1969 courtesy of Stax Records. Over the decades that have followed, Mavis has worked with a wide-range of luminary artists, including Curtis Mayfield, Prince, the Band, John Scofield, Ry Cooder, George Jones, Natalie Merchant, Nona Hendryx, Jeff Tweedy, Dr. John, Los Lobos, and Patty Griffin. And she's used her voice to pay tribute to Mahalia Jackson, Ray Charles, Johnny Paycheck, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, and Stephen Foster because there's not a song that isn't made better by Mavis singing it.
Over just the past five years, Mavis won her first Grammy (Best Americana Album for You Are Not Alone), earned two honorary doctorate degrees (Berklee College of Music and Columbia College Chicago), performed on the Kennedy Center Honors, and played numerous festivals and shows. This year, not only did she release a stunning EP produced by Son Little, but Mavis is also featured in a documentary about her life (Mavis!) and got a tribute concert of her own which brought together Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, Gregg Allman, Patty Griffin, Jeff Tweedy, Joan Osborne, and others in her honor.
Osborne is, herself, a soul-based singer with a voice that transcends time, place, and genre. After her early start in the blues bars of New York City, Osborne climbed the charts in the mid-'90s on the strength of the curious little pop song about God that was “One of Us.” Much like Mavis, Osborne's schedule is always flooded with invitations to sing with all sorts of folks, from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to the Indigo Girls to the Grateful Dead. Also like Mavis, her albums have delved into all of the great American forms -- soul, country, blues, pop, and folk. Though she continues to issue solo sets -- including last year's beautiful Love and Hate -- Osborne is now part of a rag-tag roots rock supergroup, Trigger Hippy. This summer, in addition to dates with Trigger Hippy, Osborne will embark on the Solid Soul tour with Mavis.
In a time when the world really needed them, the Staple Singers gave so much through their music. Is it safe to assume that it's not just Mavis's voice that you admire, but also the substance of her life and work?
Absolutely. Yes. I think you have to look at the beginning which was, she was part of a family group. Her dad was very much the engine of creating this family group and getting them out in different churches, taking them all around and teaching his kids how to sing with him. He was an incredible figure. You listen to those early Chess recordings and the sound that they created was just so other-worldly, so unbelievable.
It was maybe when I was still in film school and I was driving home from New York to Kentucky, and I stopped in a little truck stop. You used to be able to buy cassettes in truck stops. There was a Staple Singers cassette and I was like, “Oh, I like the Staple Singers.” This was a compilation of their early stuff on Chess. I put it on in the car and was listening to it, driving in the dark, these highways and back roads between West Virginia and Kentucky. Chills were going up and down my body. It was this incredible sense of being in an alternate universe, another time and another place. It affected me really, really deeply. And I've talked to a lot of people who reference those recordings as being this incredible moment where their voices and Pops' guitar and the material and the recording style -- all that just came together in this unique, beautiful, amazing way. So I have to go back to that. You heard Mavis's voice coming out of that beautiful stew of voices. You heard that she had something special, even among this incredible family. And you heard her insistence. You heard her passion. And you heard her soul. It was really, really powerful. That was probably how I first connected to her.
She does have an amazing instrument. Nobody can deny that. But, there are people who have amazing instruments and then there are people who know how to use those instruments to penetrate people's souls and minds and hearts. That's what Mavis could do, even back then. And she's continued to do it throughout her whole career. I think you have to start by looking at where she came from and that she was in this crucible of incredible music and soul and passion and faith and worship. Even in that, she stood out. She had something very special.
Like you ... soul, gospel, folk, blues, Americana … she sings it all. What kind of voice does it take to have that cross-genre fluidity and appeal? Are there technical aspects to it or is it just the singer's being -- what's flowing through the voice ?
I don't know that I can speak about technical stuff. I'm not a technical singer. And, if you're talking about American roots music, to a certain extent, that's beside the point. I think it's being able to mean what you're saying. Whether you started out as a hillbilly country singer and you're singing gospel and blues or whatever, like Hank Williams would do, or whether you're Mavis Staples who came out of the gospel church and can sing, as you say, anything she puts her mind to. It's really just about meaning it and allowing the song to come through you, allowing yourself to be the instrument that the song inhabits for the time you're singing it.
Mavis only won her first Grammy in 2011.
I can't believe it took that long.
Right? That's 61 years since she started performing. What is the disconnection happening there?
I don't think Bob Dylan won Grammys when he was doing the work that marked him as the special one he was. The Grammys are a great, cool thing. But, certainly plenty of people who are doing amazing work don't get noticed by the Grammys for a number of reasons. You can look at that and be like, “It's a shame. It's unfair.” And it is. But, that doesn't take anything away from Mavis Staples being who Mavis Staples is. Or from any of those people being who they are and doing what they do. I think it's unfortunate, but time and history will rectify those things. Mavis Staples, even if she'd never won a Grammy, is not going to be forgotten.
What did it mean to you to participate in Mavis's recent tribute show?
Oh, man … I was so thrilled to be there and be one of the people who got to present how much I love her and be a part of paying tribute to her. Of all the singers that I idolize, she just has this special place for me. She has this incredible joy that she brings with her everywhere she goes.
I think the first time I saw her in concert was at the Gospel Tent at New Orleans Jazz Fest. This was when Pops Staples was still alive. She came out and, from the moment she came up there, was just beaming. She had this incredible charisma and this incredible joy that she infected everyone with. Every time I've seen her since, no matter what she's singing or what forum she's in, she brings that. It's an inclusiveness. There's a depth to it that … you can look at her as being a great singer and admire her for that -- and that's wonderful -- but you feel like she's just a bringer of love and joy. It's really amazing to be able to do that.
And she'll be 76 in July.
Exactly. To be part of that was wonderful. I know that she's had some health issues, so to see her -- energetic and healthy -- get out there and sing with Jeff Tweedy and this one and that one … that was, for me, such a beautiful thing to see her like that.
Another thing that I really loved about being part of the Mavis tribute is that people did songs not just from the old days. In fact, a lot of the Staple Singers songs that I thought would get done because they were obvious choices, didn't get done. People went to the material from her work in the past 15 to 20 years which is so rich and so wonderful. Mavis is not a nostalgia act. She's somebody who's kept doing this and, because of who she is, writers want her to cover their material and musicians want to work with her. People want to keep what she has alive and current. That's one of the great things about her. She's not just, “Oh, remember what I did back in the day?” She still has so much to give and she's supported by a great live band. It's wonderful to see.
Are you still going to be going at 76 -- that feisty and everything?
You know, I hope so. My mom's 84 and she runs rings around me. I might have that. I hope so. I hope people are still interested in hearing me.