Legendary gospel-soul singer Mavis Staples made her name with her family band, but she's made some of the best music of her career over the last decade with a surprising series of collaborators.
Starting with a 2007 album of Civil Rights songs recorded with roots-blues guitarist Ry Cooder, Staples has worked with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, self-described "future soul" musician Son Little, and is now out on her first co-headlining tour, with Joan Osborne.
"I've just been a lucky old girl. I seem to always choose the right one," says Staples, now 76 years old. "I've been blessed enough to have these good people come into my life and we gel. It's always a good mixture."
The current Solid Soul Tour traces its roots to Staples' star-filled 75th birthday concert last summer in Chicago. Osborne opened the show, singing "You're Driving Me (To The Arms of a Stranger)," which Staples released on her debut solo album in 1969.
"I knew I loved Joan and knew that would be good for us two girls to go out and work together. She's beautiful people," Staples says. "We're going to have fun on the road. We'll sing some songs together, something like 'Will the Circle be Unbroken.'"
Staples says she fell in love with Osborne when she first heard "One of Us," the singer's 1995 breakthrough hit. Lyrically, she says, it was just the type of thought-provoking song that shows how music can influence people. It carried a message that fit well with the Staple Singers' hits of the 1960s and 1970s, a blend of gospel, soul and folk that sent Pops Staples and his daughters, Mavis, Cleotha and Yvonne, to the top of the charts.
"I don't think the world could do without music. It heals so many things. It makes so many things better," Staples says. "It makes you laugh, makes you cry, heals you. It's medicine for you, it brings joy. It doesn't matter what kind of music it is, blues, gospel, folk, all kinds of music."
After the Cooder-produced We'll Never Turn Back, Staples recorded a live album at the Hideout in Chicago. The members of Wilco were in the crowd and afterwards, Tweedy came backstage to introduce himself and congratulate Staples.
Two weeks later, Staples' manager called with news that Tweedy wanted to produce an album with Staples. They arranged a meeting at a restaurant and after Staples loosened things up with a joke, the pair hit it off.
"We must've talked a good two and a half hours and when we left that restaurant, I knew Jeff Tweedy and I could make good music," Staples says. "He told me how long he'd loved the Staple Singers. He had it all on his iPod. But what really got me was he started talking about family. This was one of my father's favorite subjects, he said 'Stick with family, it's the strongest force you have in the world.'"
The collaboration with Tweedy led to 2010's Grammy-winning You Are Not Alone and 2013's One True Vine, after which Staples and her manager thought it was time to move on. So they sat together, listening to new music and one performer stood out.
"When he got to Son Little, I said 'Wait a minute, go back to that guy. That's the guy.' Son Little was singing this song with so much feeling. When (my manager) told me his name was Son Little I cracked up. He has that old feeling to his music and that sound. I said that's the one I liked," Staples says.
The Son Little-produced Your Good Fortune EP was released in April, just after the premier of the documentary film Mavis! at the SXSW Film Festival. More new music and the widespread release of Mavis! will keep Staples busy through the next year.
"That's what I'm looking forward to for 2016, my documentary and I'm looking to record a new album. I don't know yet who will be producing it, but I'm collecting songs now. I'm good to produce myself too, just go in and start singing," Staples says.