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Mavis Staples talks about new music, remembers ‘homie’ John Prine

Mavis Staples onstage at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee, 2019. (Terry Wyatt/Getty Images for Americana Music Association)
Mavis Staples onstage at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee, 2019. (Terry Wyatt/Getty Images for Americana Music Association)

by Sylvia Jennings

April 13, 2020

Morning Show host Jill Riley recently had a chance to connect with Mavis Staples as a part of The Current's Phone a Friend series. The two discussed Staples's new song, "All In It Together," produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, as well as her fond memories of John Prine.

Jill Riley: Mavis, how are you doing?

Mavis Staples: I'm doing okay. I'm holding out.

Where are you right now?

I'm home. I'm in Chicago.

How are things in Chicago? What have you been experiencing?

Well, just about the same thing everyone has been experiencing on lockdown. You look out the window and it looks like a ghost town. It's pretty dreary, but the sun is shining today. That makes it better.

What have you been doing at home to keep yourself occupied and to fill the time?

I have a lot to do. I have been cleaning closets, cleaning drawers. So much has accumulated that I haven't touched in a couple of years, so I'm getting rid of a lot of stuff.

You've been staying really busy, and in fact, I know that you put out a song with Jeff Tweedy, and it's so timely. It's called "All In It Together." Can you tell us about that song?

Jeff and I did that song in 2017. It was on the shelf, so when we heard these newscasters, every other word they say "we're all in this together," I would just start singing that song to myself. I said, "we have a song called 'All In It Together.'" Finally, I got to Jeff, and I said, "Tweedy, this song needs to be released right now. It's right on time, for today." He got in touch with the record company and asked them to release it. This is where we are now. We're all in it together.

With the release of this song, Mavis, I know that there's a charitable side to it. Do you want to talk about how this song is going to benefit the folks in Chicago?

We want to benefit My Block, My Hood, My City. It's an organization ensuring that seniors would have access to the essential needs to fight this disease. Our seniors are suffering.

We're talking about getting hand sanitizer, groceries, and other necessities to isolated members of Chicago, and the seniors that need help.

That's right, and everyone should stay at home as much as possible. Let those front-liners do their jobs. We all have a role. I'm thinking of all the workers; the doctors, the nurses, the grocery store workers, the trash collectors, the pharmacists. They're putting it on the line to help us. We should say a prayer for them. My mother always taught me that a Mavis prayer is powerful. We're living in trying times, and prayer, for me, is the answer. That keeps me alive. That's what's been keeping me from going stir crazy.

I was just thinking this week about another person from Chicago. Did you know John Prine?

You know, I had been trying to meet him for so long. Just last year, I finally met him. He gave me a hug, and I was so happy to meet John Prine. That hurt me so bad. I knew he had this virus, but I was praying for him to come out of it alright. When I heard that news yesterday, it just crushed me, just broke my heart.  "Angel in Montgomery" — that is the most beautiful song. He wrote a lot of good ones, but that's my favorite.

I found myself incredibly sad because he was just such a gifted, funny, and empathetic songwriter. A guy that beat cancer twice dying at 73 from complications of this virus — I'm just feeling very frustrated.

Right, right. It makes you angry because he was such a beautiful spirit. I was so happy to meet him. I'm so glad that I got a chance to speak with him and get that hug. I'll never forget that. I thought about lil' Bonnie. Bonnie Raitt and I had just spoken about it last week. He was one of her best friends. I told her, "Bonnie, I was so glad that I got a chance to meet him in Nashville last year." Then here we come with this news yesterday. It was just crushing.

I bet you felt like two kindred spirits, not just in the music industry, but having that Chicago blood.

Yes. He was [from] Chicago. He was a homie, a great man.

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This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.