When fellow Chicagoan Jeff Tweedy signed on to produce Mavis Staples’s gospel record, he offered Wilco’s loft studio and asked for one of her father’s guitars. You Are Not Alone opens with the sweet, distinctive sound of Pops Staples telecaster and it resonates throughout the album just as it did on The Staple Singers’ recordings. But it isn’t just the patriarch’s guitar that infuses this album; every song vibrates with the spirit of the patriarch. It’s only fitting that Mavis Staples carry on the legacy of one of music’s most successful family bands.
Over the last few years Ms. Staples has revisited music made popular by The Staples Singers. In 2007, with the help of producer Ry Cooder, she breathed new life into songs from the civil rights movement. You Are Not Alone resurrects gospel standards from the band’s earliest years as well as two of Pops Staples’ songs. Opening the record with her father’s song “Don’t Knock,” Staples sets the template for the album. This is going to be a raucous affair; Pop’s message of redemption is a reason to loudly proclaim the good news. Ms. Staple playfully balances this theme with Pop’s counterpoint song “The Downward Road.” This tale of a woeful sinner doomed to hell is powered by chugging guitar, staccato percussion, and a backing choir.
Staples Christian belief is surely obvious in her interpretations of traditional numbers, among them “Wonderful Savior” and “In Christ There Is No East or West,” but her renditions sound inclusive and inviting. Tweedy does a wonderful job modernizing the arrangements without losing the original spirit of the songs. Several tracks, including “Creep Along Moses” are infused with Wilco-esque rocking interludes. Tweedy wrote two original songs for Mavis including the title track. Not only is it one of the best songs he’s ever written, it clearly shows how in tune he is with Staples. This is a song she was born to sing.
Staples also covers songs by Allen Toussaint, John Fogerty, and Reverend Gary. Her voice has settled into a lower register and rumbles with lived-in warmth. Her rendition of Randy Newman’s “Losing You” is stunningly sad and beautiful. Ms. Staples said that she sang this song with her father in mind. A father could not ask for a more heartfelt tribute.