Alex Wong, Getty Images WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama said he'd…
- Posted on Oct 12th 2010 4:30PM by James Sullivan
The great Mavis Staples still believes one of the best albums she ever made was in 1993, almost two decades after the heyday of her family group, the Staple Singers. She recorded 'The Voice' for Prince's Paisley Park imprint, with his royal Purpleness in the producer's chair. But with the label entangled in a financial battle with Warner Bros., 'The Voice' received little attention.
"People say that was a failed record," Staples tells Spinner. "I felt like that was a hit record."
Nearly two decades later, the gospel-trained singer is enjoying some belated recognition for her later-life solo career. In 2007, she made 'We'll Never Turn Back,' a well-received collection of songs from the Civil Rights era with Ry Cooder at the helm. Now she has a bona fide best-seller on her hands with 'You Are Not Alone,' an album of spiritual songs made under the unlikely direction of Wilco's Jeff Tweedy.
"Through all those years, at my age, for this to be happening right now is almost unbelievable," says Staples.
But rejuvenated older artists have become something of a staple in the record business in recent years. From Staples peers such as Bettye LaVette and Booker T. Jones to aging rockers (Robert Plant), showmen (Neil Diamond, Tom Jones) and country queens (Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton), the traditionally youth-oriented industry has been welcoming back senior practitioners, often in new contexts, perhaps more than ever before.
There are several potential reasons for the revival. In an age of digital downloads, older artists making aesthetically cohesive full-length albums can still sell their share of CDs. The original rock 'n' roll generation is just reaching retirement age, and many younger listeners are developing an appreciation for grizzled veterans as an antidote to the relentless pop machine. And as a result, more producers and labels have been thinking creatively on behalf of experienced artists, pairing them with timeless material or "age-appropriate" arrangements.
The late Johnny Cash, of course, helped kick-start the current oldies-but-goodies phenomenon with his series of acoustic albums with producer Rick Rubin. Yet producer Ethan Johns, who has worked with Ray LaMontagne and Kings of Leon, says he didn't discuss the Cash records at all with his latest client, Tom Jones, whose organic new gospel album, 'Praise & Blame,' has taken listeners by surprise.
Johns says he wanted to focus on the record he was making with Jones, not align it with someone else's success story. "I think it's a bit of a cop-out, really, to make those comparisons," he tells Spinner. In fact, he wasn't aware that Cash's final release with Rubin was called 'Ain't No Grave' until he and Jones had already included the title track on their own record.
In many cases, singers have been urged to return to the forms that inspired them to make music in the first place. For Jones, traditional gospel was a first love. Dolly Parton, long past her pop-crossover days, has been indulging in her beloved bluegrass, and Jack White has gotten Loretta Lynn and now Wanda Jackson to embrace his rootsy, historically minded brand of rock 'n' roll.
Such commitments, says Staples, make sense for artists of a certain age. "You hang where you're supposed to be," she says. She recalls a comeback attempt by one peer who "tried to do what the kids were doing. You can't jump on that bandwagon. You've got to stay true to yourself."
She admits she can use some reminding herself from time to time. When Staples suggested adding a guitar solo to one of her new songs, Tweedy gently set her straight. "Don't you remember, Mavis? The Staple Singers never did a song past two-and-a-half or three minutes long," he told her.
Their collaboration was "a lovefest," attests Staples. "He kept me laughing through the whole session." When Tweedy first explained his idea for the original song that would become the album's title track, she told him, "'Tweedy, you've got to write it ...' I started getting chill bumps when he was talking about it."
'You Are Not Alone' was released by the Epitaph affiliate Anti-, which has become a leader in reintroducing music's elders, including LaVette, the recently deceased Solomon Burke and the late country star Porter Wagoner, to later generations. Most recently, the label issued a showcase album for 82-year-old jazz-blues pianist Mose Allison, whose wry songs have been covered by rock acts for almost half a century.
"It's funny how the industry always seems to focus on the youth," says Johns, who is now working with 20-something singer-songwriter Priscilla Ahn. "I haven't figured it out yet. The more balance, the better, I think."
The bottom line, he says, is that "a great artist is a great artist. If they've got something to say, you want to be in a room with them. And it doesn't matter how old they are."