On their second collaboration, legendary singer Mavis Staples and Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy have crafted a gospel album for the 21st century, a music that strives for faith in a world where nothing can be taken for granted. On One True Vine, Mavis Staples gives voice to something new in her repertoire, something deeper and more resonant with our times; longtime fans will notice a new reserve in her singing, a muted, plaintive quality that serves the darker, more nuanced songs collected here perfectly. If her Stax hits spoke for a growing black social consciousness, and her seventies collaborations with the Band and others gave spiritual weight to the rediscovery of tradional American music, then in our post-millenial drift, Jeff Tweedy has crafted a pulpit from which Mavis lends her voice to a search for grace.
One True Vine is a dark night of the soul, a journey from a search for faith to glorious belief. Starting with Alan Sparhawk from Low’s downtempo “One Holy Ghost” – a song that feels the presence of God without fully comprehending it – and moving through the Jeff Tweedy original “Jesus Wept,” a questioning of the darkness in the world, the album begins in the depths. Even the perfectly chosen Funkadelic classic “Can You Get to That?,” a high-flying respite in an otherwise subdued first half, is built around a question of the spirit. Then at mid-point, Nick Lowe’s “Far Celestial Shores” picks up the pace, and the album opens up like a parting of the clouds. The tempo kicks in with a tent-revival throb, and even when things slow for a moment with the greasy funk reworking of the Staple’s “I Like the Things About Me,” it’s a second half of light and redemption. Closing with the beautiful ballad “One True Vine” (the third of the Tweedy originals), the album ends on a note of salvation, with Mavis cradling the lyric like a prodigal son.
No one should be surprised at this new Mavis Staples; for six decades she has been the solid rock of American music. Alongside the family group she is so identified with, the Staple Singers, Mavis has managed to transform herself as she goes, yet never alter. From the delta-inflected gospel sound she helped create in the 1950s, to the engaged protest of the civil rights era, and then, amazingly, on pop radio in the Stax era with a series of soul anthems, from “I’ll Take You There” to “Respect Yourself:” through all these Mavis carried on, her warm embrace of a voice the only constant. How many musicians can claim this: to exist outside any scene, outside genre, yet weaving themselves into the fabric of soul, R&B, jazz, gospel, rock and blues? Many of the maverick names that come to mind are composers as well; that Mavis has created her legacy as an interpreter of others – an underestimated talent since the days of the band singers – makes her achievement all the more impressive. She gives voice to others; more than that, she gives voice to entire movements, to eras, to songs so old their roots are lost. And she manages to work a little PFunk in there too.
Recently, recognition of Mavis’ unique role in American music has been growing beyond her longtime fans, dipping into the wider world of pop as she performs alongside Justin Timberlake at the White House tribute to Memphis Soul, or with Elton John in a show-stealing Grammy tribute to Levon Helm of the Band. Her first album with Tweedy at the controls, You Are Not Alone, won a much deserved Grammy. Now, on her second collaboration with Tweedy – Mavis calls him “Tweedy” all day long, and they are a pleasure to watch in the studio, riffing like some old vaudeville team – she has made an album to match her new national profile. One True Vine is an album that will both surprise longtime fans and solidify her position at the helm of American music.