Mavis Staples Gets By with Help from Her Friends

Aarik Danielsen

We Get By closes a sublime decade for the reigning queen of gospel and soul, Mavis Staples. This is her fifth record of the 2010s, each created in the company of musical mainstays with deep, wide careers. Yet, for all their credits, each collaborator is decades younger than Staples, who turns 80 July 10.

Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy produced You Are Not Alone (2010), One True Vine (2013) and If All I Was Was Black (2017). Underrated singer-songwriter M. Ward oversaw Livin’ On A High Note, delivered in 2016. On We Get By, Staples enlists the significant talents of producer and primary writer Ben Harper, who owns a 25-year career as a bandleader and solo artist. Staples’ willingness for intergenerational artistic collaboration has borne excellent musical fruit. Her successful partnerships bear some biblical echoes of learning and leadership.

These producers place their subtle stamp on these projects yet never attempt to reinvent Staples. Harper doesn’t try to make Staples sound 40, 50 or even 75 on We Get By. He knows she needs every day, every experience, of her 80 years to deliver these songs with salt and soul. Staples sings with her customary grit, yet sounds refreshed in a way only someone drawing from a deep reservoir of relationships can.

The record opens with “Change,” a chugging blues. “What good is freedom if we haven’t learned to be free?” Staples pleads on a tune that would be at home in a Sunday service or a Saturday protest march. A stuttering guitar groove leads Staples and listeners into “Anytime,” a hymn to readiness and resilience.

The title track, a proper duet with Harper, is a perfect statement of the record’s purpose and posture. In the first bars, over a newly-made bed of clean guitar, easygoing bass and crisp drums, Staples and Harper trade lines of devotion. “We get by on love and faith / We get by with a smile on our face,” she begins. He answers in kind: “We get by with help from our kin / We get by through thick and through thin.”

The record is a tapestry and testimony, bearing witness to a beautiful exchange of ideas, finding joy in identity and inflection. If you know Harper’s catalog, you can close your eyes and hear him delivering these songs without dissonance or strain. Traces of Jeff Tweedy ring through his collaborations with Staples, especially on the guitar. Those prior records put forth minimalist acoustic figures he would later explore in his solo work, and accessed the lean electric grooves of Sky Blue Sky-era Wilco.

"In these creative partnerships, Staples and her younger allies each bring value to the table and find they are better together, able to share the work of producing a joyful noise."

These particular threads never detract or distract from Staples’ gifts, but burnish them with present-tense expression. Harper, Tweedy and, to a lesser degree, Ward identify with the core of Staples’ style and substance—rhythm and blues, God and a progressive vision of America—then give these timeless elements full, fresh expression. In this way, Staples’ recent work evokes Johnny Cash’s late-in-life, Rick Rubin-produced efforts. In each case, the younger creative partner honored their legendary counterpart by understanding them, then encouraging them to explore unseen vistas along well-traveled highways.

With the help of her friends, Staples sounds out variations on the great themes of her career: the beauty of blackness, strength in numbers, the truly amazing nature of grace. That Staples still riffs on these ideas with a full heart and robust instrument in 2019 reminds listeners that history—musical or political—isn’t a straight line, but contains many steps forward and more than a few back. Facing progress and its interruption, Staples sounds as sober-minded and hopeful as ever.

The Bible delivers a similar counter-cultural vision for meaningful connection across generational lines. Paul spends significant portions of 1 Timothy and Titus stimulating mutual respect, engagement and service between older and younger Christians. Each has something the other needs; each bears responsibility for the other’s growth and fidelity to Christ.

Thousands of years later, we see the proof of Paul’s instruction. Churches comprised solely of senior saints often die out—spiritually first, then sometimes literally—for lack of new blood. Younger Christians can falter without older, wiser counsel that takes a long view of discipleship and sees down the road to the devastating effects of sin and poor spiritual habits. When we compartmentalize our common life by age or affinity, we miss the reciprocal benefits Paul describes and stop short of God’s complementary design.

Staples’ recent records reflect that Biblical wisdom. At this stage of her career, she could easily hold tightly to a tried-and-true way of making music, or let go completely of her sense of self and her artistic standards in the presence of younger collaborators. She does neither. Staples never looks down on her cohorts for their youth, a reaction Paul explicitly warns Timothy not to accept, but values artists with common tones and touchstones, regardless of lifespan. In these creative partnerships, Staples and her younger allies each bring value to the table and find they are better together, able to share the work of producing a joyful noise.

Paul would recognize something of himself and his hopes for the church in Staples’ songs. She and her fellow musicians testify that when we get together—and get comfortable with people of another generation as true equals—we do more than get by. We thrive.

Think Christian Podcast: Fellowship of Believers (Toy Story 4, Mavis Staples' We Get By)

Topics: Music