The music of Mavis Staples has been a part of my life for so long, enriching it in so many ways, that the Chicago gospel-soul veteran feels like family. In my mind, she's Aunt Mavis: a warm, reassuring presence whose musical words of down-home wisdom have guided me through the years.
To get ashes from wood, you've got to burn it
And if you wanna be loved, said if you wanna be loved
You've got to earn it. "You've Got to Earn It," 1970
If you walkin' 'round thinkin' that the world owe ya something 'cause ya here
You're going out the world backwards like ya did when ya first come here. "Respect Yourself," 1972
Are you sure it'll be a waste of time
To stop and let your lovelight shine
Think before you answer
Are you sure "Are You Sure," 1972
On her new album -- We'll Never Turn Back, in stores Tuesday, Staples returns to the kind of "freedom songs" she sang in the late '50s and throughout the '60s with the legendary Staple Singers, the family group that included her father "Pops," brother Pervis and sisters Yvonne and Cleotha. (Pervis left the fold in 1969, three years before the Staple Singers topped the pop charts with 1972's million-selling classic "I'll Take You There.")
Produced by the chameleonic Ry Cooder and released by the indie rock label Anti, We'll Never Turn Back updates songs long associated with the black church ("This Little Light of Mine" and "Jesus is On the Main Line") and the civil rights movement ("Eyes on the Prize" and "We Shall Not Be Moved").
"On this new record, I'm singing with everything that's in me," says Staples, who's calling from her Chicago home. "I'm singing sacred music. You don't have to clown and jump around. As long as you're sincere and sing from the heart, you will reach the people."
That's an ethos Pops passed on to Staples when she was about 13 and singing lead in the family group. Ever since her father's 2000 death, which officially ended the Staple Singers, the vocalist has continued the mission of message music.
"This album here, I felt this was the right road to take," says Staples, 66. "Through all of our travels as the Staple Singers, we felt the racism. It's still there, you know, that racism and people not being treated equally. ... So the messages in these songs, the stories they tell, are still relevant today."
Over the years, Staples has recorded eight solo projects. And all have been overlooked, including 1970's classic Only the Lonely and 2004's sterling Have a Little Faith, which Staples produced. We'll Never Turn Back benefits from Cooder's sensitive, unobtrusive arrangements. His approach is decidedly modern and textured but retains an organic, lived-in feel, a nice complement to Staples' expressive, worn-around-the-edges style.
"The sessions were magical," the singer says, a smile in her huskily rich voice. "Ry had to edit a lot of the songs, because I was just singing. I was gone. We have a 25-minute version of 'With My Own Eyes' [a self-penned tune and a highlight on the album]. But Ry -- he's so cool -- he ended up editing it down for the record. He just let me sing in the studio."
Another great cut is "Down in Mississippi," the first track on the CD. Against a thick, rumbling groove, Staples sings about the place where her father was born. Mid-song, she breaks out into a spirited dialogue about childhood visits to the Magnolia State -- walking gravel roads with her grandmother and naively integrating a Laundromat.
"That story is true," Staples says. "I was visiting from Chicago and needed to wash my clothes. ... I walked in. There were some white women in there, but they didn't say anything to me. And some black ladies followed me on in there. Word got back to my granddaddy, and he was so proud, bragging to his friends."
The resilient, deeply rooted music on We'll Never Turn Back is a contemporary extension of the classic, soul-folk sounds of the Staple Singers. But you probably won't hear anything like it on urban radio these days, which saddens Staples.
"I don't understand black radio stations," she says, sounding disappointed. "They won't play my records, the message music. ... I'd love to sing for my own. It hurts me that the old-school artists who have all this wisdom and are still making good music don't get the support from the black community. It's black music I'm doing, but it's mostly white people who come to our shows and play our records."
Staples says she's grateful for the support -- regardless of the color. But it is a sad situation. The very community that needs to hear the wise, inspiring words and music that enliven We'll Never Turn Back probably won't hear it.
"God gave me this voice. And if I don't use my talent, He will take it away. I've always believed that," Staples says. "It's my duty to pass on something to help you get up in the morning, to help you make it through your day."
For as long as I can remember, the music of Mavis Staples has done that for me.
To hear clips from Staples' new album, go to baltimoresun.com/listeningpost.