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  • By Alan Richard


Updated: Aug 1, 2021

Mavis Staples brought one of her pre-80th-birthday concert celebrations to Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium on May 15, celebrating her more than six decades in music by bringing together artists from country, soul, rock, gospel and beyond to make some sweet sounds.

Nashville singer-songwriter Langhorne Slim kicked things off, telling the crowd that even as a 12- or 13-year-old boy attending synagogue in suburban Philadelphia, he was deeply moved and influenced by the Staple Singers’ early blues-influenced gospel recordings. He led the crowd soulfully in verses of “Old Time Religion,” included on the Staples' 1963 album, This Land.

Nicole Atkins then helped opened the show, and she would bring her powerful, soulful voice to several appearances throughout the concert. She began with Mavis’ “Have a Little Faith”(from her lesser-known 2004 comeback album of the same title; the track was covered beautifully by Gregg Allman on Mavis' 2017 concert album).

Atkins’ band included bassist David Hood, who played on some of the Staples Singers’ funkiest sessions for Stax Records at Muscle Shoals, Alabama. “I can’t believe I’ve got to song freedom songs again,” Atkins sang.

Husband-and-wife duo The War and Treaty then made their first of several appearances with the Staples’ classic, “Sit Down Servant.” Singer Michael Trotter bellowed, “If Pops Staples was here tonight... I believe he’d sing a little bit like this!” (Check out The War and Treaty's and other artists' favorite Mavis and Staples Singers' songs on this cool list .)

Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives--the dynamic, virtuosic country-rock act of Harry Stinson, Chris Scruggs, and Kenny Vaughan--whose album Souls’ Chapel pays tribute to the Staple Singers and features a guest appearance by Mavis, sang one of the Staples’ first recordings, “Uncloudy Day.” Stuart said he remembers hearing the song growing up in the 1960s in troubled Philadelphia, Mississippi. A late-19th century tune that Bob Dylan has said he found beautiful and mysterious as covered by the Staples, it was on the family group's 1959 album of the same title.

Mavis and her own touring band, led by Chicago blues guitarist Rick Holmstrom and featuring the fabulous singer Donny Gerard (former lead singer of Skylark), began their full set with “Take Us Back,” written by Benjamin Booker for Mavis’ 2016 wonderful album Livin’ on a High Note.

Mavis and her band then covered the Talking Heads’ politically relevant classic, the slinky “Slippery People,” which the Staples daringly covered on their 1984 album Turning Point. Nicole Atkins then returned to join Mavis on “Love and Trust,” written by Ben Harper, from the High Note album.

The Lone Bellow joined Mavis' band for another classic once poignantly covered by the Staple Singers, Buffalo Springfield’s 1966 “For What It’s Worth,” which seems just as timely now.

Americana music king (and one of the best living songwriters) Jason Isbell played bluesy guitar and sang with Mavis on “Change,” from her new, Ben Harper-produced and -written album We Get By.

British singer-songwriter Nick Lowe joined Mavis for “Far Celestial Shore,” which he wrote for her High Note album.

Elle King joined Mavis for the Staples’ classic “Respect Yourself,” although King’s part seemed way too short. From the Staples’ 1972 smash Stax album Be Altitude: Respect Yourself, the lyrics say that while we may want the president “stop air pollution, put your hand over your mouth when you cough--that’ll help the solution.”

The War and Treaty came back to sing on the Staples’ stirring “Freedom Highway," which Mavis said is “a song we would sing as we marched the Southern highways with Dr. Martin Luther King."

Among the surprise performers was Wynonna, who harmonized powerfully and beautifully with Mavis on the new cut, “Stronger,” about unity and friendship, and how “nothin’ is stronger than my love for you.”

Milk Carton Kids and Wilco keyboardist Pat Sansone of Wilco appeared for Mavis’ “You Are Not Alone,” perhaps her best modern-day song, written and produced by regular collaborator Jeff Tweedy. Mavis’ first album with Tweedy in 2010 won the Grammy Award for Best Americana Album.

Surprise guest Margo Price and her husband accompanied Mavis on a shouting version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” The classic song also served as the finale’ of the April concert at the Ryman celebrating the forthcoming Ken Burns documentary for PBS, Country Music. “This is the very first song my father taught us back in 1949,” Mavis said.

Sheryl Crow stepped on stage, another surprise guest, for “Touch a Hand, Make a Friend,” from the Staples’ often-overlooked 1973 album Be What You Are, before all performers gathered for the Staples’ best-known hit, the calypso-gospel “I’ll Take You There,” and their classic with The Band, “The Weight.”

(In 2007, Mavis Staples returned in earnest to civil-rights and empowerment themes in her music and after more romance-oriented detours and two album produced and mostly written by Prince, with We'll Never Turn Back, an album of folk music and civil-rights anthems, , produced by Ry Cooder and featured vocals from South Africa's Ladysmith Black Mambazo.)

Performers black and white, from soul, country, and gospel, from multiple continents and traditions, did their part in making America's musical circle complete--one of Mavis Staples' many legacies that will endure.

The legendary Mavis Staples and her band, joined by Wilco's Pat Sansone on stage the Nashville's Ryman Auditorium during a May 15 concert celebrating Mavis' 80th birthday.

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