Marty Stuart: Souls' Chapel

This appeared on Grassroots Music - July 18, 2005

Souls' Chapel, Marty Stuart’s first gospel album, is also the first of a trilogy of diverse collections based in the richness of Southern culture that Stuart will release on his new Superlatone Records imprint with Universal South.

The music on Souls' Chapel – in stores August 30th - hews purely, passionately, and closely to what Stuart terms Delta Gospel. "You know what this record sounds like to me?" he asks. "It sounds like everything I heard on the radio as a kid growing up in Mississippi.”

A string-player prodigy, the Philadelphia, Mississippi native's first job found him on the road, playing mandolin with the Sullivan Family Singers, who sang bluegrass gospel music. “I began appearing with them when I was 12 years old,” Stuart says. ”We played Pentecostal churches, camp meetings, bluegrass festivals and George Wallace campaign rallies all throughout the South that summer. It was baptism by fire into a wonderfully archaic brand of church-house rock and roll. I always felt the presence of the truth inside that music.”

“Gospel music should represent the truth,” Stuart says. “The truth is, the creative process of this record was stalled when I got arrested and sent to jail for DUI, and it wasn’t the first time it had ever happened to me. The press was all over it. I was so humiliated. I also felt powerless not being able to live out the message of what I was singing about here. In the midst of my personal failure, I lost sight of any faith or hope.”

But then something awesome happened to Marty Stuart. "We were playing a show in Chicago the day after I got out of jail. Mavis and Yvonne Staples came to the concert that night. Without them knowing what had happened at all, they brought and gave me Pops Staples' guitar. It was the greatest confirmation I'd ever had to fight on. It was like being handed the Excalibur sword. It was like being knighted with an instrument of light.”

"And," says Marty Stuart, "it gave me the inspiration to go on, get my life back on track, and make this record."

'Souls' Chapel' was recorded outside Nashville, in Hendersonville, Tennessee, at Stuart’s home. The sessions employ his band the Fabulous Superlatives -- drummer Harry Stinson, bassist Brian Glenn, and guitarist Kenny Vaughan -- augmented by a handful of other musicians, such as the drummer Chad Cromwell and the great Muscle Shoals-sired keyboardist-producer Barry Beckett. Stinson, Glenn and Vaughan also contribute background and lead vocals instead of their usual instrumental work. And on the climactic song "Move Along Train," Mavis Staples of the legendary Staples Singers shows up and sings with Stuart. "I called Mavis," Stuart says, "and I said, 'Mavis, gotta have you on this one.'"

It was not just any call. As they played their customary live dates across the country, Stuart and his band had taken to singing gospel songs on their bus. Inescapably this meant, for Stuart, the brilliantly conceived and executed work of the Staple Singers, with whom Stuart had recorded a searing version of The Band's "The Weight" for the 1994 collection Rhythm, Country & Blues.

"Pops Staples was always one of my closest friends," Stuart says. "To me, he was as much a force of light as Robert Johnson was a force of darkness. So Pops and I were real close; the Staples are like my family."

The eleven songs that comprise Souls' Chapel are both old and new. The collection opens with "Somebody Saved Me," a Pops Staples composition that indicates at once how Stuart -- singing in a naturally strong voice that conveys both authority and intimacy -- and the harmonizing of his band will approach this material. And that involves, basically, the Staples' masterful idea of bringing off the most emotionally expansive music not with swelling choirs or organs, but the frequently funky allure of minimal front-porch instrumentation.

Going onward, on songs such as the more quickly-gaited obscure, Albert E. Brumley gem "Lord, Give Me Just a Little More Time" and the bluesy "Way Down," a Stuart-Stinson original, one hears the sort of music where, as in classic Jamaican reggae, every drum shuffle, every snaking guitar line, every empty space communicates deep universes of feeling, all which amplify the effect of the singing.

"To me, the Staples Singers, what they sounded like, from the first time I heard the way they sang 'Will the Circle Be Unbroken'," Stuart says, "was that they were like ghosts standing in a cotton field, quietly proclaiming, not shouting and screaming, without any kind of guilt thing. To me, the word that sums up gospel music above all is 'inspirational'. It should be inspirational music; it shouldn't condemn or threaten. It should inspire and inform."

This is exactly what the music on Souls' Chapel does, from the easeful narrative flows of Stuart's "The Gospel Story of Noah's Ark" to the intense soulful loveliness of 1975's "I Can't Even Walk (Without You Holding my Hand)," and the double finale of Steve Cropper and William Bell's "Slow Train" preceding "Move Along Train," the deliberate, fiery Stuart -- Mavis Staples duet written by her father. "It's hard to beat standing in the middle of the Mississippi Delta, singing out," Stuart says.

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