Mike Farris is a man of many musical hats. Coming to prominence in the early '90s with blues rockers Screamin' Cheetah Wheelies, Farris battled addiction and a changing musical landscape that found his band out of favor with its major label. He found success stint as an in-demand collaborator on the Nashville music scene. Finally, he reinvented himself as a gospel singer, winning a Grammy in 2015 for Best Gospel Roots Album for his Shine for All the People. Now Farris is making a return to his secular blues-rock roots with his new album Silver and Stone, out on Compass Records Sept. 7.
The album's title refers to the ring he gave his wife of 23 years, who supported him through his addiction and recovery. In places, Silver and Stone is a love letter to his wife and son. Kicking off with an original tune, the Memphis-tinged amble “Tennessee Girl,” Farris dedicates a good portion of the album to love songs of varying tempos. The album's lead single, “Golden Wings,” is a letter to his son to avoid the mistakes of his father. He opens with “Listen up a child, don't run so wild” before reminding him that “you know the sun's gonna shine when it please, you know the tides gonna rise and set you free.”
Farris' gospel roots are sprinkled throughout both the words and melodies of Silver and Stone. The album's standout track, “Can I Get a Witness?” wraps a glossy shine of soulful doo-wop backing vocals lush keys around a testament that sounds like Farris channeling a charismatic preacher at a tent revival. The chorus, a repeated “can I get a witness?” six times, builds to a frenzy before sinking back into those outstanding harmony vocals for a crooned “giving you all of my love, yes it's true.” His cover of Sam Cooke's “I'll Come Running Back to You” carries the weight of the surrender required both to give your life to another person and to give your soul to a higher power.
Silver and Stone is not only a love letter to his family, but also to his musical influences. “When Mavis Sings” is an ode to Farris' friend and mentor Mavis Staples, both for her prodigious musical talent and her heart for equality. Farris' ode to Bill Withers comes in the form of covering a deep cut, 1971's “Hope She'll Be Happier.” It's a dark song to begin with and Farris brings every ounce of his vocal talent to bear to make it even more of a lament.
His celebration of his influences also extends to his backing band for Silver and Stone. Joining Farris, longtime collaborator Paul Brown, and producer Garry West on instrumentals are famed Memphis drummer Gene Chrisman, who has worked with everyone from Elvis to Dusty Springfield, guitar from John Hiatt sideman Doug Lancio, and keyboardist Reese Wynans from Stevie Ray Vaughan's band Double Trouble.
But the most notable guest is blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa. A friend since the two shared touring bills during the Screamin' Cheetah Wheelies days, Bonamassa lays down a barnburner solo on “Movin' Me.”
It's taken Mike Farris four years to craft his follow-up to Shine for All the People, but the wait has been worthwhile. Silver and Stone retains enough of Farris' fiery delivery to make fans of his gospel work happy while giving fans of his bluesier side something to chew on as well.