The music of the civil rights era is on the mind of soul legend Mavis Staples. Her new Anti- 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.
“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.”