Pop music has reached a cross-generational threshold. The stalwart artists of the past are beginning to age and pass on, while a new wave of musicians take their place. Such transitions exist in a variety of cultural contexts — politics, religion, art, sports — though pop music, which we trace back to the ‘50s and ‘60s, is only just now reaching this point.
As a member of the Staple Singers, Mavis Staples helped christen this incredible era. Her uplifiting gospel soul served as an emotional and spiritual refuge from the tumultuous wartime of the ‘70s, and through her songs, she became a matriarch of the genre. She’s released solo records in every decade since her 1969 self-titled debut.
And she’s not done. In 2010, Staples enlisted Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy — a fellow Chicagoan — to produce the Grammy-winning You Are Not Alone. It was a product of that aforementioned threshold of young and old: Staples the legend, Tweedy the legend-in-the-making. These songs contained some of the most sincere words Staples had ever sung, with Tweedy presenting them plainly and accurately. No frills — just her voice and sparse acoustic instrumentation.
One True Vine acts as a sequel. With Tweedy back behind the boards, we again hear Mavis Staples as she actually sounds. Minimal reverb. Few overdubs. Recorded at the Wilco Loft with Tweedy playing most of the instruments, the recordings are remarkably crisp, as we hear every vibration from the acoustic guitars and every tired note in Staples aging voice. Admirably, she doesn’t try to hide the cracks or blemishes, singing with the same power that she implored 40 years ago in her family band.
The record carries the same poignancy as the Staple Singers material — that same sense of refuge from cultural chaos. To listen to it now is to soundtrack a world where there’s violent rebellions abroad (Syria) and conspiratorial controversy at home (NSA). The circumstances are less than ideal, but One True Vine avoids the status quo in its search for salvation. When Staples optimistically looks past the “earth and hate and war” on the Nick Lowe-penned “Far Celestial Shore”, she doesn’t dwell on the things out of her control. On “I Like the Things About Me”, she shrugs off her faults and actually embraces the mistakes she’s made. The warmth in her voice conveys confidence; she truly and undeniably believes in what she’s singing.
Her strength drives the songs. Even on a off-handed cover of Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That”, Staples dominates each note, making this rendition as fun as the original. Tweedy stays out of her way, putting her voice front-and-center among acoustic guitars, drums, bass, and backup singers. The album has a laid-back, live feel to it. His composition, “Jesus Wept”, best illustrates this. To a bare chord progression, Staples reaches for her deepest baritone: “My heart lifts when I sing/ The joy I could bring/ It doesn’t mean a thing/ I want to see you again.” These occasional hints of melancholy are the record’s most affecting moments.
One True Vine is a gospel album; however, its earnest sentiments are universal. Mavis Staples sings for the personal joy it brings her and as an outlet for her emotions. That’s why her creative partnership with Tweedy works so well. He’s a like-minded artist and a sonic craftsman — his raw production lending itself to the Staples powerful presence. She yearns on these songs: for God, for love, and for peace. Her conviction is truly inspiring.
Essential Tracks: “Jesus Wept”, “Far Celestial Shore”