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Mavis Staples digs her some younger men, but she'd rather lead them to the studio than the bedroom. "I think it really makes for a good record when you get a young head and an old person together," says the Staple Singers veteran (and self-described "golden girl") of You Are Not Alone, her new full-length collaboration with fellow Chicagoan and Wilco boss Jeff Tweedy. A rousing compendium of old-time religion and more contemporary rock tracks (including two Tweedy originals), it's both critically acclaimed and Grammy-nominated (as Best Americana Album). And, no, I don't have any idea what that category means, either.
This union between the alt-country star and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee/Lifetime Grammy Award recipient/soul icon/black mother I wish had kicked off in 2006. Staples heard that Tweedy wanted to sit in at a hometown gig. She knew about Wilco, as they reminded her of old friends the Band, with whom the Staple Singers—the family-affair r&b sensation, led by the late Roebuck "Pops" Staples, that first propelled Mavis to stardom—appeared in 1978's The Last Waltz. At the last minute, Tweedy was rendered unavailable, but he (and Wilco) did make it down to the same club a few months later for another show; after the set, he approached Staples about the possibility of recording an album. "He wanted to meet at a restaurant so we could get to know each other better," Staples explains, her joyfulness transcending the indifference of cell phone reception. "I let him into my life, he let me into his life. We talked about family. That's what really got me. Because my father always stressed that family is the strongest unit in the world." With Tweedy, "the way he talked about his family, his sons, his wife, he would just light up. I left feeling very comfortable with him."
Stocking his iPod with the Staple Singers' music dating back to the '50s, Tweedy set about reintroducing Mavis to what had first inspired, informed, and would remain the backbone of that group: the church and the blues. "He was right on cue," Mavis recalls of traditional tracks like "Creep Along Moses" and "Wonderful Savior." "I said, 'Tweedy, where did you get this? These are older than me—my father used to play them for us. I love them, but never thought I'd be singing them, so we gotta put these down. Man.' This album took me from childhood to my young-lady years to my golden-girl years. It's my life—it's just phenomenal."
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Much like Jack White's work on Loretta Lynn's Van Lear Rose or Rick Rubin's records with Johnny Cash, You Are Not Alone successfully pays homage without covering Staples in nostalgic bubble wrap. "I think the younger artists listen to us older artists," she says. "They feel something that they want a part of. They feel like we have been here, we have the wisdom, we know how to take a song where it needs to go. And I think younger artists just wanna be a part of that."
Of course, this isn't the first time she's done the unexpected. Prince executive-produced 1993's The Voice; at the recently aired Kennedy Center Honors, Staples shared the stage with Steven Tyler as part of a tribute to Paul McCartney. Yet for a woman whose family provided the soundtrack for the civil rights movement, sang at the Newport Folk Festival, and peaked commercially in the '70s with the pop smashes "I'll Take You There" and "Let's Do It Again," performing at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear and Lollapalooza 2010 must have been a trip, looking out over that sea of ironic T-shirts and Civil War beards and wondering why her audience is sprinkled with pesky kids young enough to be her grandchildren. "They are ready to hear us give them what we have," she explains. "A lot of people think that the youngsters now are just coming over to us, but the Staple Singers' audience was like from ages eight to 80. But there are more young heads now that Tweedy has produced this CD. I can say, 'And we'll be singing you some songs from the new album produced by Jeff Tweedy,' and the audience will go, 'Woo!' So I know that they're out there. But we still get a mixed audience. And I'm grateful for every year I get. I'm happy just to be seeing these youngsters and working with a kid like Jeff Tweedy."
Staples's life remains as rich and distinctive as that burnt-molasses voice, and her connection to her family continues to be sacred and omnipresent. She notes that the date of our interview (December 28) would have been Pops' 97th birthday. "I wish he could be here to see the things that have happened today and hear these songs," she tells me. "I can see his face and hear his laughter."
Mavis Staples plays the Bell House January 18