Pops Staples put his own inimitable stamp on the blues, although he himself rejected the blues label and called his music gospel. His belief in God takes center stage, but his is a loving lord. Pops acknowledges the problems of poverty, addiction, sin, and such. After more than 80 years on the planet as a black man from the South, Pops knew right from wrong even when he was on the losing end. But he never gave up faith.
Staples began taping Don’t Lose This back in 1998 at the urging of his kin. The patriarch was not healthy, but with the help of his family he was able to make one more album. However, the demos were somewhat rough and never released until now. His daughter Mavis brought it to her recent producer, Jeff Tweedy, of Wilco, and asked him to help her get the material in shape. Tweedy added post-production playing and vocals (by himself and others) that smoothly blended with the original recordings. The results sound clear and immediate, with Pops’ ministerial voice (as well as the vocals of his talented daughters) and resonating guitar ringing loud and proud.
Perhaps it is merely a function of age, but Pops sings with a confidence in his message of faith and an awareness of our own human frailties without condescension. We all might be sinners, but we can be redeemed. On one of the most powerful tracks, “Nobody’s Fault but Mine”, Pops acknowledges how easy it is to blame others for one’s problems and reminds us to look at ourselves for the answers. As another song makes clear (“Love on My Side”), one may be homeless, poor, hungry, and broken but one can still find salvation in God’s love. The deep, rich sound of Pops’ guitar captures the immense spirit of a human being that cannot be seen in the physical manifestation of a man dressed in rags with alcohol on his breath.
Most listeners will recognize the old hymn “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”, because of its importance to contemporary country music vis a vis the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album of that title. However, Pops performs it as a spiritual tune far from its country connotations. This version calls for a congregational hallelujah more than a generational sharing of roots. Pops celebrates the end of life as a time of glory. The other song most listeners would know is Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody”. As with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”, Pops takes an upbeat approach to the lyrics and melody. Serving the lord brings one joy and nobody but a fool would serve the devil. It’s like asking one whether they would choose a life of pleasure or a life of pain—a real no brainer.
Dylan had covered the Staple Singers early in his career, and they had recorded several of his compositions. Dylan even proposed marriage to Mavis, who turned him down. Hearing Pops sing Dylan here, with Mavis assisting, makes one wonder how fruitful that relationship could have been from a musical perspective. That conjecture aside, Pops’ rendition of Dylan is just one of the many highlights on this record of a singular musician who left his mark on music without ever taking his eyes, heart, and soul off the lord. All of the songs, the traditional material, the self-penned cuts, the well-known tracks, reveal Pops’ enormous talent. He found his inspiration in God and encouraged the rest of us to find the love within ourselves and share it with others.
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