In late 2014, singer-songwriter Mike Farris released Shine for All the People. It was his sixth solo album since leaving the Screamin' Cheetah Wheelies in the early 2000s, and his first as a sober man after years of alcohol and drug abuse. And it was a full-tilt, back-to-church gospel album, soaked in the spirit from top to bottom. Farris combined his emotional vocals with some classic spiritual material like "Jonah and the Whale," "The Lord Will Make a Way Somehow," and "This Little Light," throwing in a choir and a horn section to boot.
It was an unexpected turn from a man who used to sing songs like "Rubbermaid Fiancée" with the Cheetah Wheelies, but Farris sang with a joyous zeal and palpable commitment, and Shine for All the People won him a Grammy Award in 2015 for Best Roots Gospel album. And while his new record, called Silver & Stone, might not be a gospel record per se, it sure as hell is full of soul.
On the Silver & Stone's 12 tracks, Farris is spiritual with a small "s," finding his joy in a good woman ("Tennessee Girl"), digging into a classic R&B ballad (a heart-stopping cover of Bill Withers' "Hope She'll Be Happier"), and exalting in the music of a legend ("When Mavis Sings"). Throughout the record, Farris quite simply sings his ass off, sounding in some moments like the great Sam Moore of Sam & Dave reborn. The spirit was in the room for Silver & Stone, even if the songs aren't the literal gospel.
"I do this thing where I'll explore something musically and move on," Farris says. "I explored the gospel world on the last album, where I was doing the old spiritual-type stuff, and then I moved out of it with this record and on to something else. So this is really the first installment of this new mode I'm entering. It's spiritual because that will always be a part of what I do, but it's not straight-up gospel in any regard."
The album sounds like it could've been recorded in the early 1970s by someone like Willie Mitchell; there's a warm, raw pulse to the record that sounds oddly out of time with modern day, hyper-polished electronic pop or grungy indie rock. And that's just the kind of sound Farris wanted, even if he wasn't sure he'd be able to get it in the studio he used.
"We went into the studio at Compass Records, where the Wanted! The Outlaws record with Waylon, Willie, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser was made," Farris says. "But what they do normally in that studio is bluegrass groups. It's an acoustic music type of place. It's a small room, an old studio from back in the day. I was like, 'OK, that all sounds great, but how's this going to sound with what I'm going to do?'"
Farris needn't have worried. The homespun atmosphere was perfect, and none of the songs took more than a handful of tries to record. In fact, most of the tracks on the finished album are first takes, done live in the studio.
"As soon as we started recording, we never went through more than five takes," he says. "The room was so good that the songs kind of mixed themselves. We added some magic dust here and there, and then it was done. I think it's the best-sounding record I've ever made."
Of course, it probably also helps that for Silver & Stone, Farris was backed by some serious Nashville pros, including keyboardist Reese Wynans (Stevie Ray Vaughan), drummer Gene Chrisman (Elvis Presley), guitarists Doug Lancio (Patti Griffin, John Hiatt), and Joe Bonamassa (opened for B.B. King at age 12), with producer and Compass Records owner Garry West playing bass.
"Garry and I spent a lot of time going over who exactly we wanted for the record," Farris says, "and lucky for us we got an amazing array of musicians in Nashville. You can come here and make any kind of record you want, and you'll find the best of the best in this town. And a lot of these guys were my friends; it just comes down to what you want and who will fit the vision in your head."
Interestingly enough, that vision in Farris' head wasn't initially a soul album. He had a completely different plan when he began writing the album, which he says is typically how the process works.
"When I started this record, I had the notion that it was going to be a rock record," he says. "I always go into the process having a certain thing in mind and it hardly ever works out that way. The music is going to find its own route; it's going to do its own thing. You've just got to show up. It didn't go anything like I thought it would, and that's fine. It's an amazing reminder to let go and let the process lead me."