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Mavis Staples' right-hand man is a Fairbanks-born guitarist. He'll back her up in upcoming Alaska performances

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published May 11, 2016

Acclaimed gospel and R&B singer Mavis Staples, last heard in Anchorage in 2007, will be back in Alaska for a concert on Thursday, May 19. For the guy standing next to her, it will also be a return trip -- in a very personal way.

Alaska-born Rick Holmstrom has been Staples' regular guitar player for the past eight years or so, heard on her Grammy-winning album "You Are Not Alone," appearing at major music festivals around the world and traveling on what he calls "a never-ending tour."

This summer, he'll be with her for 33 gigs between the time they leave Anchorage and the end of July. The summer schedule includes a series of concerts with Bob Dylan.

Not bad for a kid from Fairbanks whose parents got him into guitar lessons while he was still in third grade.

"Playing music didn't mean much to me at the time," Holmstrom told the Dispatch News. "The guitar was just another toy in my room. I was way more into basketball."

He graduated from Monroe High School and went to college in Redmond, California. It was there where friends persuaded him to join them in a band, and something clicked.

"I got bit big time by the music bug," he said. "I started touring in '89 and have been doing it for 27 years now. It's crazy."

By the time Holmstrom's college buddies talked him into jamming with them, Staples had already enjoyed a full career and might have been expected to be retired, savoring her laurels and royalties.

She was 11 years old when her guitar-playing father, Roebuck "Pops" Staples, had her singing with her siblings at the Baptist church in Chicago where her uncle was the pastor. A couple of years later, the family group, which would become famous as The Staple Singers, was recording spirited gospel songs. In 1955 they had a hit with "Uncloudy Day," a religious tune that Pops observed, with a note of satisfaction, "sold like rock 'n' roll."

The Staple Singers stayed with their "message" music, but added a stronger beat over time. Pops was friends with Martin Luther King Jr., and the family's music wove into the soundtrack of the civil rights movement. From the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, a number of their recordings crossed over to the pop charts. And while all the Staples kids were fine musicians, Mavis' smooth and passionate voice stood out. She enjoyed her own solo career in addition to performing with the family.

The last Staple Singers songs to make the top 100 charts were released in the mid-1980s. But Mavis was far from finished. She continued recording in the 1990s, with two albums produced by Prince.

In 2004 she had a big success with "Have a Little Faith." That was followed by "We'll Never Turn Back," a tribute to the gospel music that inspired participants at civil rights rallies in the '60s. It was released in 2007, a few months after the University of Alaska Anchorage Student Concert Board presented her at Wendy Williamson Auditorium in a show still fondly remembered by local music fans.

Around this time Holmstrom was getting calls from Staples' manager. She was still performing with the band that her father had put together. "The manager didn't think it worked any more. He asked if I'd bring my band in," Holmstrom recalled.

But after 20 years in show business, Holmstrom knew that sometimes, talk was just talk. "I told him I was interested, but not to bring it up again unless it was really going to happen."

One night, he and the band, The Late in the Night Trio, opened for Staples at the pier in Santa Monica, California. "There were thousands of people out there," Holmstrom said. "We got done with our set, and I looked over and the promoter was telling me to keep playing. So we did. And again, he told me to keep playing. It turned out her band was stuck in Los Angeles. So they asked if there was any way I could back her up."

Holmstrom and Staples scrambled to buy time. They performed four songs until her band arrived to finish the show.

"As I was walking off the stage, someone taps me on the shoulder. It was Ry Cooder." Holmstrom said. Cooder was in the process of producing "We'll Never Turn Back" with Staples at the time. "He flipped out about us and was going around telling everybody that he really liked the band."

"You Are Not Alone," with Holmstrom and company backing her up (and produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy), earned Staples a Grammy in 2011. She had previously received a special Grammy for lifetime achievement, but an actual music award for Best Americana Album was more heartening for her. She was in tears as she accepted the golden turntable statuette and told the audience, "This has been a long time coming."

Today Holmstrom is Staples' right-hand man. Literally. In photos and videos, he typically stands just off her right arm, the same spot that Pops Staples liked to play from back in the day. (Not the whole time, of course. Staples is highly mobile onstage, and so are her co-performers.)

Playing with Staples is not just an honor, Holmstrom said, but an inspiration. "For her, it's been a real steady climb. She's 76 years old and still a completely vibrant, relevant artist. We get on these big rock festivals and just slay people."

Those big events include the giant Glastonbury Festival in Great Britain, with more than 100,000 people in attendance, "a sea of people as far as you can see," Holmstrom said.

A 2016 documentary on Staples, called "Mavis!," got high marks from national critics earlier this year. Last month Staples got glowing reviews at the Coachella Festival in California. The Wall Street Journal called her "a ball of energy" and the LA Weekly praised her "powerful pipes (and) even more powerful stage presence."

Holmstrom's mother and step-dad live in Anchorage -- he'll arrive a few days before the Alaska show with his family. On May 21, he'll be with Staples as she closes out the Juneau Jazz and Classics Festival. Then comes the big summer road show starting in June.

"That one's kinda exciting and mortifying at the same time. I have daughters age 13 and 9, so I hate to be gone so long," he said.

"But how many times in your life do you get to say you were on the road with Bob Dylan?"

MAVIS STAPLES will perform at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 19, at Wendy Williamson Auditorium on the UAA campus and at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 21, in Centennial Hall in Juneau. Tickets are available at centertix.net and jazzandclassics.org.

CHELSEA BERRY, singer-songwriter originally from Chugiak, will open for Staples' show in Anchorage. She will also perform at 6 p.m. Sunday, May 15, at Vagabond Blues in Palmer. Tickets are available at centertix.net.

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