Mavis Staples & Levon Helm — Carry Me Home
I have long been campaigning to include Mavis Staples on Mount Rushmore. It is true that, technically, she never was President of the United States like those other guys, but her voice has inspired more people that any of them ever did. Carry Me Home, the wonderful new gospel/folk/country/soul album she and the late Levon Helm just released on Anti Records should convince any remaining skeptics of the wisdom of my campaign.
Carry Me Home was recorded live in the Summer of 2011 at Helm‘s fabled Studios in Woodstock, NY. Although it was far from clear at the time, this session would be one of the very last times Helm preformed. To be clear, there is no air of melancholy or sadness here; Staples and Helm are inviting us to a celebration. Even on the traditional hymn, and Staples Singers standard, “This May Be The Last Time,” the feel is reflective but never somber. And no one hits that spot better than Mavis Staples.
Backed by The Levon Helm Band, including his daughter, Singer/Songwriter Amy Helm, and by members of Staples’ touring band, Carry Me Home rocks, rolls, thumps, groves, growls and shouts its way through a dozen songs including classics (“You’ve Got To Move,” “Farther Along”), newer songs (Buddy and Julie Miller’s beautiful “Wide River to Cross,” Larry Campbell’s “When I Go Away” and, a couple that split the difference (“The Weight,” “Gotta Serve Somebody”).
Carry Me Home was produced by Staples and Helm with Larry Campbell, the sometimes-Dylan sideman who had long been part of Helm’s musical family. Just as Helm’s drumming anchors the outstanding band, Campbell’s guitar work elevates it, taking the music in surprising and welcome directions. (See: the guitar solo on “This May Be The Last Time.”)
Helm’s spirit is all over Carry Me Home, but his voice stays mainly in the background. That’s partly, I’m sure, a function of treatment for his decades-old battle with throat cancer, and partly because, well, he has Mavis Staples there to sing lead. When he finally takes the lead vocal, on the album’s final cut – perfectly, and perhaps inevitably, “The Weight, Helms (and The Band) and Staples (and the Staples Singers) sang so powerfully 46 years ago as part of The Last Waltz movie – the band, and the audience, take everything up to another level. Staples herself said, “The place just went wild when Levon sang. It was a real full-circle moment to be performing that song together again.”
It is also an album with a point of view. The first verse of the first song (a cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “This is My Country”) says “Some people think we don’t have the right/to say it’s my country/Before they give in would fuss and fight/than say it’s my country/I’ve paid three hundred years or more/of slave robbing sweat and welts on my back.” If that’s too subtle to catch your attention, stay tuned for “I Wish I Knew How It Felt to Be Free,” the Billy Taylor/Dick Dallas song immortalized by Nina Simone: “I wish I knew how it would feel to be free/I wish I could break all the chains holding me/I wish I could say all the things that I should say.” Like nearly all of Mavis Staples’ work, Carry Me Home seeks to inspire and educate as it entertains.