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Slowing Down

Jesus on the Interstate: The Extraordinary Mavis Staples

MavisDid I really just say just a few days ago that Fountains of Wayne's Traffic and Weather was the best album of 2007 thus far? I did. . . but that was before I heard Mavis Staples' We'll Never Turn Back. Staples was one of the voices of The Staple Singers, a band that became, through their friendship with Martin Luther King, the singing voice of the civil rights movement. Over 40 years ago, Mavis herself spent the night in a West Memphis jail at the behest of a racist cop. She reflects on that and other events of those days, connecting the civil rights movement then to, for example, the marginalization of blacks in the wake of Hurrican Katrina.

I had some rare time this evening along the interstate to listen straight through the record, twice, and I'm knocked over by the power of it --- faith leading to action. Mavis is a believer, dedicating her album to "My Heavenly Father - To God Be the Glory," and noting in her liner notes that "for us [The Staple Singers], and for many in the civil rights movement, we looked to the church for inner strength and to help make positive changes. That seems to be missing today." The album is a positive and yet chillingly honest challenge to biblically-rooted social action. It's mix of traditional tunes, like "Down In Mississippi," 'This Little Light of Mine," and "Jesus on the Mainline," along with originals coauthored with producer and guitar virtuoso Ry Cooder. The songs prod us, admonish us, and encourage us to put feet to faith.

And the music? Not a single klunker here. The sound is authentic and rootsy, Cooder providing some snaky electric guitar and thumping percussion, Mavis with her deep, throaty vocal, backed by the original Freedom Singers and Ladysmith Black Mombazo. It's gospel-soul. And it's authenticity was reassuring on the interstate, a corridor which seems so plastic and homogeneous with its fast food restaurants, gas stations, and big box stores.

In "99 And 1/2," Mavis sums it up: "My God is a freedom God/ He'll make a way for you. . . ./ I'm running, trying to make a 100, but 99 and 1/2 just won't do." This is no 99 and 1/2 album. This is a 100. Give it a spin. Listen to my favorite, "My Own Eyes," here.

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