Mavis Staples has just finished a long day of rehearsal in New York City. But to hear the legendary singer tell it, it sounds more like she’s come home from a party.
David Byrne, Lake Street Dive and Valerie June are among the friends who came to run through a song with her, and the Jonas Brothers — rehearsing for their reunion tour down the hall — stopped by to say hello, too.
“There are just a couple that I wasn’t familiar with,” Staples tells The Tennessean.
“I saw their name on the list, and I had to ask my tour manager. I said, ‘Who is this?’ He said, ‘Mavis, you met them at Newport (Folk Festival).’ I said, ‘Well, you can’t blame me, because I’m gonna be 80 years old.’ ”
Staples — a member of the rock and roll, blues and gospel halls of fame — turns 80 in July.
To celebrate, she’s hosting an all-star concert at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium on May 15, between similar shows in New York and Los Angeles this month.
In Nashville, she’ll share the stage with John Prine, Jason Isbell, Wynonna Judd, Elle King, Nick Lowe, Marty Stuart and many others.
Mavis Staples performs during the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn., Saturday, June 9, 2018. (Photo: Andrew Nelles / Tennessean.com)
But the shows, of course, are also a celebration of a staggering career, spanning nearly 70 years.
It began with her family gospel group, The Staple Singers, who went from singing in church to providing the soundtrack to the civil rights movement, and ruling the pop charts with “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself.”
Staples never stopped singing, and had a remarkable resurgence in the 21st century, thanks in part to her love of collaboration. She worked with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy on several albums — which led to her first Grammy Award in 2011 — and this month, she’ll release her latest, produced by rocker Ben Harper.
Just last year, she brought the crowd to their feet at the CMA Awards, singing “I’ll Take You There” with Chris Stapleton and Maren Morris.
“You cannot not like country music, especially if you’re a musician,” she says. ‘“That’s the way I feel.”
And Staples has been singing with country stars since her first trip to Nashville, 50 years ago. In 1969, The Staple Singers performed on the Ryman stage as part of TV’s “The Johnny Cash Show.” She says the group had gotten to know Cash after sharing a car with him and Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival.
Staples remembers performing at the Grand Ole Opry, too.
“We met Minnie Pearl and all of the old-timers back then. Minnie Pearl, she had this tag hanging on the back of her hat. And my father, he said, ‘Look, y’all. She forgot the tag!’ He started trying to pull the tag off. We said, ‘No, Daddy!’ I had seen her on TV, and I knew that tag was supposed to be there.
“We even met Charley Pride,” she continues. “That was really something. I couldn’t believe that this was a black man with that accent that he had. He and Marty Stuart sounded the same way!”
The Ryman also sits just one block away from the site of the 1960 Nashville sit-ins — a nonviolent protest against segregation at lunch counters, and a crucial chapter of the civil rights movement. Three years later, The Staple Singers crossed paths with Martin Luther King Jr., and Staples’ father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, was inspired by the meeting.
“Pops had heard his message, and he said, ‘I love this man. I like his message, y’all. I believe if he can preach it, we can sing it.’ ”
They began writing and performing “freedom songs,” starting with “Freedom Highway.”
“Yes, we want peace, if it can be found,” Mavis Staples sang on record in 1965. “We’re marching freedom highway/ And we’re not gonna turn around.”
Today, she belts out “Freedom Highway” with just as much conviction, and makes sure to sing it at every show she plays. During a performance at last year’s Bonnaroo festival, she told the young audience, “I was there. And I’m still here.”
President Barack Obama hosted his final Kennedy Center Honors gala at the White House on Sunday. Actor Al Pacino, rock band the Eagles, pianist Martha Argerich, singer Mavis Staples and singer-songwriter James Taylor all received the honors. (Dec. 4)
That highway eventually led to the Obama White House, where Staples was happily a guest on more than one occasion. She feels differently about President Donald Trump, deeming him responsible for “a resurgence of bigotry and hate” in a 2017 interview with Time.
But asked about her outlook today, Staples says, “It’s a time when we should all be coming together the way we are. Let’s just try to make this world a better place to live in. We need each other.”
In that spirit, she plans to sing along with nearly every artist who takes the Ryman stage Wednesday. She’s happy to see female artists joining forces, including the buzzed-about supergroup The Highwomen.
“Maren Morris and Brandi Carlile, these girls, they’re doing something that I wish my peers had done. I tried to get my peers, ladies, to sing with me: ‘Let’s do something together!’ I thought that would be the best thing. And now, they’re bringing it to life.”
If that sounds at all like Staples is preparing to pass her baton, think again.
“I can’t stop. I’m just thankful to God that he has kept me. I still have my voice. I have my health and strength, and I will be around.”
“People may as well get used to seeing me, because I’m gonna be in their faces, talking about freedom.”
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