Mavis Staples’ career is a patchwork quilt of the varied forms of American music: she began with her family, the famed Staple Singers, who sang a country/blues-inspired form of gospel and morphed into their own brand of message music that converged with folk, funk and soul. Her solo career veered into disco, Prince-produced R&B dance tunes, and then, finally, the broad world of Americana that brought her full-circle. The trek into Americana, which began with 1996’s Spirituals & Gospel: Dedicated to Mahalia Jackson (a collaboration with Lucky Peterson) has given Staples the freedom to operate without the constraints her early career in gospel required and the musical compartmentalizing the more commercial periods of her career demanded.  

Staples’ last studio release, 2019’s We Get By, produced by Ben Harper, was, perhaps, her edgiest and best-paired collaboration to date. Harper penned all ten tracks and filled the album with sounds that mirrored aspects of the Staple Singers’ sound, which enabled the new songs to sound familiar, but not redundant. 

Now we’re being presented with another brilliant collaboration, this one from the archives.  

Mavis and Levon Helm of The Band last collaborated in 1978 on The Band’s The Last WaltzThe Staple Singers’ performance of “The Weight” is a chill-inducing moment from start to finish, climaxing with Mavis mouthing ‘Beautiful’ to the group as the scene fades. The Band was an ideal pairing for the Staples’ as they also drank from the same well of blues, country, soul, folk and gospel, albeit from different cultural vantage points. As was documented in the 2015 documentary, Mavis!, Staples and Helm remained friends after The Last Waltz. Helm died of throat cancer in 2012, but in 2011, he and Staples were able to perform together one last time at his Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock, New York with Helm and Staples’ bands converging in the ultimate jam session.  

With Helm on drums and a cast of musicians who have backed Bob Dylan, B.B. King, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Charlie Musselwhite, Darlene Love and hundreds of others, the rhythm section plays with both precision and soulful abandon. When you add Vicki Randle, Amy Helm, Teresa Williams, the late Donny Gerrard and Yvonne Staples on background vocals and a solid horn section to the brew, you’ve got a seriously soulful event happening. 

They go all the way back to the earliest Staple Singers recordings with 1954’s “This May Be the Last Time” and “Move Along Train,” which are delightful to hear revisited over fifty years later. Her readings of these Pop Staples originals on Carry Me Home aren’t perfunctory or robotic. She possesses an even tighter grasp on both their meaning and history, making these versions seem as necessary as the originals.  

She pulls out tunes from the gospel and blues traditions including Mississippi Fred McDowell’s congregational tune, “You’ve Got to Move” and the much-covered “Trouble In Mind” and places them alongside modern classics written by her friends, the late Curtis Mayfield (“This Is My Country”) and Bob Dylan (“Gotta Serve Somebody”). The Mayfield and Dylan tracks are, undoubtedly, standouts. On ‘Country,” Staples ad-libs about birther-ism and notions of going back in time, scoffing “That don’t sound like progress to me.” On “Serve,” she renders a sermonette that matches the fervor of her most memorable from The Staples’ years (“Pray on My Child,” “Are You Sure”). 

Be clear, however, that this is not just about nostalgia. The new(er) compositions are equally as compelling. Buddy and Julie Miller’s “Wide River to Cross” (recorded by Helm himself on his 2007 Dirt Farmer) and Dottie Peoples and Harvey Watkins’ “Handwriting on the Wall” (recorded by Peoples on her 1996 release Count on God) are exceptional on an album that doesn’t have a skippable track in the first place.  

Helm joins voices with Staples on the album’s closer, The Band’s “The Weight,” but his presence, support and understanding of Staples and her vast musical trajectory, supports the totality of Carry Me Home. Together, they created a release sure to make the list of 2022’s best releases. 

Tim Dillinger, Editorial Content Manager