The music of the civil rights era is on the mind of soul legend Mavis Staples. Her forthcoming spring album, "We'll Never Turn Back," leans heavily on songs from the period in which the Staples Singers began to shine on the gospel/folk circuit. But this is not an album about the past.
Teamed for the first time with producer/composer Ry Cooder, Staples offers contemporary arrangements and reworked lyrics to a number of traditional offerings. Check "99 and 1/2," which loops finger-picked blues notes and a dance groove under Staples' impassioned, feisty vocals.
As the 66-year-old singer calls out the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, the listener can hear every bristling strain in her vocal chords. Cooder's beat-heavy take on the gospel cut is as modern a take on tradition as Moby's 1999 merging of dance and blues traditions, "Play."
The idea for the album sprung from Anti- president Andy Kaulkin, who signed Staples after learning she had exited her Alligator Records contract. Kaulkin says he was inspired by the civil rights book "Walking With the Wind," written by Congressman John Lewis, D-Ga., and pitched an album to Staples in which she would tackle music of those times.
Speaking from her Chicago home, Staples confesses she was skeptical of the concept at first. But then she says she spent a little time thinking about current events.
"I realized what these songs were about wasn't all in the past," she says. "You've got Katrina, and all of these black people-and some whites-floating around in this water with signs asking for help. And you've got policemen shooting these black guys with 50 shots. Why? And then you have a white comedian standing onstage and shouting the 'N word.' So it's all still here."
Due April 24, "We'll Never Turn Back" takes a decidedly different approach than Staples' 2004 solo return, "Have a Little Faith." The Alligator release saw the singer grappling with issues of faith and family as she worked through the loss of her father, Roebuck "Pops" Staples.
At the time, Staples says she was hesitant to record without her family, as her sister Cleo had recently been stricken with Alzheimer's disease and the 50-year run of the Staples Singers had come to an end. But the critically acclaimed album has sold 29,000 units in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and the Staples Singers received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2005 Grammy Awards.
Today, the singer can barely wait to get back in front of an audience; she spent about one-third of her 90-minute Billboard interview singing. She also seems rejuvenated by the heavily improvised recording sessions with Cooder, who brought in members of the Freedom Singers to record with her.
To Kaulkin, the concept brings Staples' career full-circle while pushing it forward. "The two things I don't like are the nostalgia and kowtowing to what artists think the kids want to hear," he says. "Neither of those works. I like to think that what we're doing with these concept records and thematic records is opening the artist up to be themselves."
Anti- has some experience in the soul market, having previously released albums from Solomon Burke and Bettye LaVette. But the adult-leaning imprint of Epitaph also has firm roots in Americana, thanks to such artists as Tom Waits and Neko Case.
It's this diversity that attracted the label to David Bartlett, who manages Staples with Matt Cornell for 525 Worldwide Management. "While Anti- doesn't have a history in the gospel world, the people who have reacted to Mavis since we've been working with her have been the rootsy, Americana-type world," he says. "So we wanted to build on that."
Alligator owner Bruce Iglauer was sad to see Staples leave. Bartlett says there was language in the contract that allowed the team to seek a new deal.
"I feel very bad that I wrote the contract," Iglauer says. "It's a little heartbreaking. But if she had to leave Alligator, Anti- would be the only other label I would choose for her."
Working with Anti- and Cooder also inspired Staples to pick up her own pen. She contributes a rare original to the album with "My Own Eyes," a slow-burning, stripped-down number that takes Staples through her career, pairing recollections of her father and Martin Luther King Jr. with today's news reports.
"I'm not a writer, and I think if I played an instrument I'd do better at writing," Staples says. "But I wanted something on this CD. So much of it is a part of my life. I don't know if my songs will change anything, but these songs will live until we get things right."