Quite a few years have passed since Mike Farris first made a splash in the roots music scene with the down-home, effervescently gritty gospel-soul album, Salvation in Lights. Signed to the unlikeliest of pipelines — a major label Christian imprint — Farris won the Americana Music Association’s new and emerging artist trophy in 2008 and, soon enough, became a go-to guest singer for the likes of Patty Griffin.
Since that time, Farris documented his force-of-nature performances with a live album and cut an EP to benefit Nashville flood recovery (featuring a song he wrote with Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor). He struggled for a time to steer his career without his late, longtime manager and to overcome an addiction to pain pills.
After all that, Shine for All the People, the album Farris released in September, felt like a second wind. The Tennessee native had a new manager, a new label, a new producer, a newly string-swathed sound and a new fire to testify. And it’s earned him his first Grammy nomination.
CMT Edge: The best roots gospel album Grammy category seems tailor-made for you. And it’s in its first year. When did you learn that that was a category?
Farris: Well, there was a category, I think it was called something different — traditional gospel or something. The last year, that was a category when Patty [Griffin] did Downtown Church, which I got to sing on, like, half of that record. I think they sent me some kind of Grammy certificate or something [recognizing] that I worked on the record. And we didn’t know that it existed then, until Patty won it. We’re like, “That’s a great category for us.”
Then the next year, they did away with it. They lopped off, like, 50 categories or something crazy. So it went away, and we were like, “Oh, no.” That’s not good for many reasons, for us personally, but also there should be a category for that music. So when we realized that they replaced it with something similar — I guess basically the same thing — we were ecstatic that they’re recognizing this. To me, it’s the foundation, really, one of the two or three foundations, cornerstones of all American music.
In roots music, I’ve seen artists emphasize they’re using the language, imagery and sound of gospel artistically without meaning it as an expression of personal faith. But something that excited me about you right out of the gate is how deeply and desperately you mean it when you sing it. What difference do you feel like that’s made to how roots audiences respond to you?
Firstly, it hasn’t made things easy for me. Like [manager Tyler Pittman] always says, “Once somebody comes to the show and hears you play, acoustically or with a band or whatever, then they’re like, ‘Oh, OK, I get it.’” But getting people to come to the table is really tough because that’s such an obstacle for people when they see that, “OK, there’s this dude who’s doing gospel music, spiritual music.”
Anything that’s tied to anything spiritual, man, people are like, “Eh, I don’t know. I don’t know this dude, and I don’t want to take a chance.” It’s like, “No, you don’t understand.” This is a universal language we’re speaking here. It goes beyond religion. … Forget about what you’ve ever experienced in religion, man. This is not that. This is something way deeper in the well.
Religious expression can leave people out, but anybody who’s in the room when you perform could feel involved.
That’s the thing. That’s why the new record is called Shine for All the People. We’re all here to offer ourselves to each other in a nonjudgmental, pure-love way, man, with no filter on the heart. We’re here to share our burdens with each other. … The music is a platform to get to that next conversation on a personal level with people that come see us or listen to our records to go, “You know what, man? I had a wonderful person that came into my life and shared with me, and I gained courage by it. And I gained courage to be vulnerable enough to let go of these things, man, and share them with somebody I could trust.” That’s what I’m about.
Your producer Paul Brown got on my radar last year because of the fantastic album he produced on Bobby Rush. I understand he’s worked with an older generation of Memphis artists like Ann Peebles and Al Green. How did you come to work with him?
You know what? Paul was hounding me for a couple of years to be in my band. I would get these messages through Facebook or Twitter or something. I was like, “I don’t know this guy. I don’t know anybody who knows this guy.” And I didn’t need a keyboard player. Then we needed somebody, so I called this guy. He showed up for the gig, and he’s all in.
His spirit is incredible. The first show, he instantly became a full-blown partner. He came from the world that I draw from that I love so much. He hung out with [Al Green’s producer/arrangers] Willie Mitchell and James Mitchell and all these guys, man — and actually wears their clothes. He’s got their hand-me-down show clothes.
Some artists want their music to speak for itself and keep the sharing of their personal life to a minimum. You’ve been so open about your highs and lows, your journeys through addiction and recovery. How do you think it enhances people’s experience of the songs on Shine when they know your story?
So here’s what happened. Salvation in Lights comes out, and I’m on this freakin’ Christian label. Great label, by the way. They were like, “Look, in the Christian world, we love music. Music’s great. But what matters in this market is your story. They wanna know about your story.” I said, “No, no, no, there ain’t gonna be none of that.” I come from the old-school where you’re building a mystery, man. You keep a distance, keep fans at arm’s length. And I’m private. I’m like, “That’s nobody’s business, man. That’s my life. You get the music, and that’s all you get.”
Fast forward to three and a-half years ago — it’ll be four years in April — I got truly, truly sober for the first time since I was 15. … I went on this journey, and I didn’t want to share that ‘cause I was in the middle of making this record. I had to stop making the record to take time out to try to get to the bottom of why I was self-destructive. I didn’t want to burden everybody with that. I didn’t want it to be a pity party for Mike. So I just kept it under wraps for the time being. …
I realize now that the most precious parts of my life come from doing these acoustic shows particularly and having that conversation, those personal conversations, with people after the show. Sometimes even during the show, people will speak up and start sharing something. I realize that everything those freakin’ guys said over at INO [Records] back then was right. But it’s not just true in the Christian world. It’s true with everybody, man. They wanna know your story. That makes you more human.