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Mavis Staples has been singing gospel and R&B for over 60 years. She began at age 13 as part of the Staples Singers with her father and siblings, and eventually released her first solo album in 1969. One True Vine is the thirteenth studio album she’s released since then as well as her second collaboration with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who both produced the album and performed guitar and bass on it. Together, Staples and Tweedy have proven to be a great team as Tweedy’s instrumentation accentuates Staples’ already incredible voice and the worldliness and life experience she expresses with it.
True to her gospel roots, Mavis Staples opens One True Vine with a pair of songs featuring strong religious themes. The first, “Holy Ghost”, is a very soft piece written by Low frontman Alan Sparhawk with a choir that expresses how Staples’ spirituality continues to support her. This theme is taken even further with “Every Step.” The bluesy tone of the song is quickly established with Wilco’s slow, roots-driven guitar playing, while his riffs are later joined by a chain that clashes on every other beat. This seems to suggest a harsh, ongoing struggle, yet Staples’ voice dominates the pounding of this chain as she sings about how her faith in God gives her the strength she needs to carry on and push forward.
Staples soon takes the heavy handedness down a notch with her cover of the Funkadelic’s “Can You Get To That”. Unlike the original, in which all the vocals come together indistinctively, Staples’ low voice stands out clearly among the accompanying back-up vocals. The contrast demonstrates just how characteristically contralto Staples’ voice is compared to most female singers.
Things take an increasingly bittersweet turn of events on One True Vine’s next trilogy songs, which pay tribute to Staples’ loved ones whom have passed away. “Jesus Wept” presents an acoustic ballad mourning the loss of someone very close to her. It’s filled with incredible poignant lines such as, “I should have told you / I could live without you / But I don’t want to.” The second song of this bittersweet trilogy, “Far Celestial Shore,” describes a place so peaceful and happy it’s most likely Staples’ vision of heaven. Then Staples wraps up the trilogy on a tear-inducing high note as she ponders how happy and sorrow-free her loved ones must be in heaven with “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today.”
Staples’ next trilogy of songs sees her grounded back in the world of the living as she imagines the good that can be done and already exists today. “Sow Good Seeds” encourages listeners to lay the foundations for a bright future while a set of twang-y Folk instruments in the background evoke an image of farm life that fit right into the theme of the song. Afterwards, Mavis places the focus on herself for the first time with “I Like The Things About Me”. It’s a confident declaration of self-confidence and how one can find good in oneself even in unpleasant places, and is so joyful that it encourages listeners to do the same for themselves. Staples’ jubilation continues as she returns to religious themes with “Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind On Jesus)”, which almost sounds like a hymn that would be welcome in any church setting.
Finally, Staples ends One True Vine on a sincere high note with the album’s title track. This final ballad sees Staples signing about an unspecified person, whom she calls her “one true vine,” who saved her from a hopeless situation. Normally vines are thought of as long-stemmed plants that are found in groups, but the fact that this person is a particular vine that stands out makes “One True Vine” a powerful metaphor for how important this person is to Staples. By ending the album with this track, Mavis Staples sums up her many life experiences in a hopeful manner that suggest more greatness is still to come.