If a man can be measured by the company he keeps, Roebuck ”Pops” Staples is without question the hippest 77-year-old bluesman on earth. In recent years, the Mississippi-born, Chicago-bred patriarch of the Staple Singers has teamed up with everyone from David Byrne to radical neo-folkie Michelle Shocked. ”You know, everybody’s a somebody in my book,” says Staples. ”But still you’d be surprised at the calls that I get. Somehow they seem to find me.”
Naturally, when it came time for the singer-guitarist to record his major- label debut as a solo artist this year, he had no problem rounding up help. Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt, and Jackson Browne were more than happy to perform and produce tracks. ”Bonnie is my favorite white-girl singer, one of the finest women I’ve ever met,” says Staples. ”She came out to the studio on her birthday to help me out. That was so cool.”
Peace to the Neighborhood, a righteously indignant, unflinching overview of American race relations (it opens with the ominous line ”Sun goin’ down in the U.S.A…”), seems especially relevant considering what has happened in the wake of the Rodney King controversy. Staples’ plaintive gospel-tinged take on the Los Lobos song ”The Neighborhood” plays like a stand-up sound bite from South Central L.A.
Staples, who was schooled as a teen in the finer points of Delta blues guitar by Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, remembers when he had to step off the sidewalks of Drew, Miss., to let a white person pass. But he also has this update about race relations in Drew: ”I went back last year,” he says with a belly laugh, ”when they named the biggest park in town after me.”