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Mavis Staples on turning 80, her Nashville past and why she ‘can’t stop’



Mavis Staples has just finished a long day of rehearsal in New York City. But to hear the legendary singer tell it, it sounds more like she’s come home from a party.

David Byrne, Lake Street Dive and Valerie June are among the friends who came to run through a song with her, and the Jonas Brothers — rehearsing for their reunion tour down the hall — stopped by to say hello, too.

“There are just a couple that I wasn’t familiar with,” Staples tells The Tennessean.

“I saw their name on the list, and I had to ask my tour manager. I said, ‘Who is this?’ He said, ‘Mavis, you met them at Newport (Folk Festival).’ I said, ‘Well, you can’t blame me, because I’m gonna be 80 years old.’ ”

Staples — a member of the rock and roll, blues and gospel halls of fame — turns 80 in July.

To celebrate, she’s hosting an all-star concert at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium on May 15, between similar shows in New York and Los Angeles this month.

In Nashville, she’ll share the stage with John Prine, Jason Isbell, Wynonna Judd, Elle King, Nick Lowe, Marty Stuart and many others.

But the shows, of course, are also a celebration of a staggering career, spanning nearly 70 years.

It began with her family gospel group, The Staple Singers, who went from singing in church to providing the soundtrack to the civil rights movement, and ruling the pop charts with “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself.”

Staples never stopped singing, and had a remarkable resurgence in the 21st century, thanks in part to her love of collaboration. She worked with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy on several albums — which led to her first Grammy Award in 2011 — and this month, she’ll release her latest, produced by rocker Ben Harper.

Just last year, she brought the crowd to their feet at the CMA Awards, singing “I’ll Take You There” with Chris Stapleton and Maren Morris.

“You cannot not like country music, especially if you’re a musician,” she says. ‘“That’s the way I feel.”

And Staples has been singing with country stars since her first trip to Nashville, 50 years ago. In 1969, The Staple Singers performed on the Ryman stage as part of TV’s “The Johnny Cash Show.” She says the group had gotten to know Cash after sharing a car with him and Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival.

Staples remembers performing at the Grand Ole Opry, too.

“We met Minnie Pearl and all of the old-timers back then. Minnie Pearl, she had this tag hanging on the back of her hat. And my father, he said, ‘Look, y’all. She forgot the tag!’ He started trying to pull the tag off. We said, ‘No, Daddy!’ I had seen her on TV, and I knew that tag was supposed to be there.

Photo Credit: mavisstaples.com