Dizzy Spins: Mavis Staples and Levon Helm - Carry Me Home
Mavis Staples and Levon Helm were friends and on-and-off music collaborators going back to the days when The Staples Singers joined The Band to record their star-studded farewell concert The Last Waltz in the 1970s.
Mavis Staples got her start in The Staples Singers, the band founded by her father, the Reverend Pops Staples. Both Mavis and Pops became icons of the civil rights movement with songs like Respect Yourself and I’ll Take You There. Mavis Staples, has enjoyed a re-awakening during the last 15 years with a series of albums. Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy produced 3 albums with Staples beginning with You Are Not Alone in 2010. M Ward produced Livin’ On A High Note in 2016 including songs co-written by Justin Vernon, Valerie June and Ben Harper. Harper produced and co-wrote songs for the 2019 release We Get By. Staples also joined Irish singer Hozier for the song Nina Cried Power, a tribute to musicians who championed civil rights in song. This summer, she’s touring with Bonnie Raitt, and at 82 remains as important on today’s music scene as she was when she began performing in the 1950s.
Levon Helm, who passed away in 2012, was a singer, songwriter and drummer for The Band. The Band carved out its own place in music history by backing up Bob Dylan and for a string of albums that defined the Americana genre before it had a name -- despite the fact that its members were Canadian. Among Helm’s vocal credits with The Band, is one of the world’s most recognizable sing-a-longs, The Weight. Since the breakup of The Band, Levon recorded with the RCO All-stars alongside Paul Butterfield and members of Booker T and the MGs. The Band itself reunited for a while without guitarist Robbie Robertson, and Helm did some acting, including playing Loretta Lynn’s father in Coal Miner’s Daughter and Captain Jack Ridley in The Right Stuff. After a bout with throat cancer in the ‘90s, Helm lost a lot of his ability to sing. In the early 2000s, he settled into primarily playing drums in Midnight Ramble in “The Barn”, his home studio in Woodstock, NY. His daughter, singer-songwriter, Amy Helm joined him and a rotating lineup of guest musicians. Eventually he put his voice back to work, releasing Dirt Farmer in 2007. Though a little raspier than his younger days, his voice remained soulful. Larry Campbell who also plays in Midnight Ramble produced the follow-up, Electric Dirt, in 2009.
In 2011, Mavis Staples along with members of her band joined Midnight Ramble in The Barn for what would become the 2022 release Carry Me Home. It’s a collection of older tunes from The Band and Helm’s solo catalog, and the Staples Singers classics Move Along Train (covered also on Electric Dirt) and This May Be The Last Time, which sadly foreshadowed the final time these longtime friends would see each other. Other tracks include a version of Nina Simone’s I Wish I Knew What It Was Like To Be Free, and gospel versions of You Got To Move and Bob Dylan’s You Got To Serve Somebody.
When I learned of the eminent release of this record, I knew it would be special. These two storied musicians and friends deliver so much more than individual performances, creating a new piece of music history and a sound that is more than the sum of its parts. Mavis Staples, true to her heritage, belts out songs with the passion of a southern preacher. Helm only sings briefly, on the final track The Weight but his drumming is crisp and energetic. Despite his failing health, he remains solidly in the pocket throughout providing the pulse to a tight rocking backbeat. The chemistry of their performances inspires their hybrid band, made up of Staples’ backing singers and members of Helm’s regular band, to rise to the occasion. Fronted by two friends who clearly love and respect each other, the album includes gospel, rock, blues and soul, and is among the purest examples of the vague Americana genre. Mavis Staples says of the experience, “It never crossed my mind that it might be the last time we’d see each other. He was so full of life and so happy that week. He was the same old Levon I’d always known, just a beautiful spirit inside and out…We hugged and hugged and hugged. I just held onto him. I didn’t know it’d be the last time, but in my heart and in my mind, Levon will always be with me because I take him everywhere I go. Yes, indeed. I can see him right now. And some sweet day, we’ll be together again.”
Carry Me Home is a danceable, foot-tapping, inspirational romp with just the right amount of rustic “barn” charm and an intriguing back-story 50+ years in the making.
Mavis Staples is touring in Oregon this summer with Bonnie Raitt including stops in Bend on August 22nd , Eugene on August 23rd and at the Britt Festival in Jacksonville on August 26th.