“Even though you might be singing about hard times, about the rough times in your life, it’s still spiritual.”
The records that Candi Staton made with producer Rick Hall and the Muscle Shoals rhythm section are some of the most unhinged, if now little-known, singles of the late soul era. Unreconstructedly down-home in style and sensibility, Staton’s blend of blues, country and gospel was at once “dirtier” and more on the edge than the music of her more famous female contemporaries. More than anything else, her pleading and shouting on such late ’60s and early ’70s hits as “I’m Just A Prisoner” and “I’d Rather Be An Old Man’s Sweetheart” recalls that of her fellow Muscle Shoals alum Wilson Pickett, albeit with a staggering capacity for tenderness and vulnerability.
Staton’s greatest fame nevertheless came with the string of strong, if streamlined, disco hits she later made for Warner Bros. with producer Dave Crawford. The trouble was, Staton’s success also drew her deeper and deeper into the hedonistic demimonde of the club culture, where addiction and an accretion of violent relationships eventually got the better of her. By the early ’80s she’d turned, or rather returned, to God and the church, where for nearly a quarter of a century she has abided, making gospel records and hosting a popular testimonial and variety hour on the Trinity Broadcasting Network.
In 2004, however, the reissue of the magnificent sides that Staton cut with Hall at FAME Studios in Florence, Alabama, reintroduced her to pop audiences. Encouraged by the raves the retrospective received when Astralwerks first issued the set overseas, compiler Mark Ainley persuaded Staton to make what would become His Hands, her first album of new material for the pop market in 25 years. Including songs written by Charlie Rich, ’60s pop and soul tunesmith Bert Berns, and inscrutable indie darling Will Oldham, the disc (released in April on Astralwerks) is being heralded not just as a country-soul comeback, but as a secular return to form as well.
Country soul, yes, at least in large part, and a glorious return to form, but as Staton explained by phone from her home in Stone Mountain, Georgia, last month, not exactly secular. Reflecting on the distinctions people routinely make between sacred and secular forms of art, Staton spoke less of boundaries between musical types and more of expressions too rich and multivalent to be confined to stylistic signatures or marketing niches.
“I think everything comes together,” she began, her speaking voice as loamy and full of grit as the one that can be heard on her records. “Even though you might be singing about hard times, about the rough times in your life, it’s still spiritual. A lot of people like to label music. To me it’s music. It’s just like me talking to you about things that I’ve gone through in my life. It’s not gospel. It’s just life, the things that you go through every day. I wanted to address those things. I wanted to bring attention to some of the pains and the hurts that go along with relationships.”
Staton describes her new record with the phrase “From the hands of abuse to the hands of God,” a journey that’s encapsulated in the album’s title track. Set to a foreboding, slow-burning arrangement, the song’s lyrics plot a harrowing course in which a man’s touch goes from tender to terrifying, thrilling to violent. Then, nearly two-thirds of the way into the track’s mostly tortured six minutes, Staton’s lamentation turns to prayer, to a plea for a healing touch from God’s unchanging hand.
“His Hands” might be inspired by the hardships Staton has endured, including growing up with an alcoholic father and surviving a series of cruel marriages, a now-safe passage that she chronicles in her 1994 autobiography This Is My Story. Yet both the book and the title track of His Hands, which was written by Will Oldham specifically for the project, speak beyond Staton’s experiences to those of others who have suffered abuse.
If only implicitly — and despite the male pronoun in the song’s title — “His Hands” also underscores how the use of gender-specific language when referring to God can cause harm. Many women and plenty of men have known abuse at the hands of their husbands, fathers, or other men. To ascribe masculinity to God, whose biblical designation as male is but a historically and culturally bound trapping of patriarchy, poses a stumbling block to many who seek to experience the divine, especially those who conceive of God in personal terms. Too many people who have been sexually abused by their fathers, for example — or by members of the clergy that they’ve called father — have had to face the agonizing choice of choking on the line “Our Father, who art in heaven” or staying away from church. Which isn’t, of course, to suggest that some women aren’t batterers as well.
Strained or broken relationships, and with them the prospect of redemption, pervade the eleven songs on His Hands, including the four composed by the singer. Staton isn’t known for her songwriting, but from “In Name Only” to “It’s Not Easy Letting Go”, her originals hold their own with the sublime likes of Dan Tyler’s “When Will I?” and Merle Haggard’s “You Don’t Have Very Far To Go”.
“I wasn’t as comfortable [writing] when I first started singing,” Staton said, recalling her early days on the pop and soul circuit. “I wasn’t an experienced writer and was always kind of shy to present my stuff. Singing songs, as I did, by George Jackson and Earl Cage and all these guys that are such wonderful writers, you kind of get intimidated to say, you know, ‘Here’s one I wrote.’
“But when I first got [back] into gospel, what really got me to start writing was the fact that there was not a song that would express how I felt. I would go back to the hymnbooks and get songs that I felt were good for me, and I did a few of those. But there was just nothing to express how I felt, so I’d sit down and start writing how I felt and they ended up being songs.”