This isn't a story about a worship band, or about a youth pastor who happens to write songs. It's a story about a guy working out his salvation with a guitar.
Mike Farris isn't the kind of person you're likely to find giving the altar call at a youth rally. He's recovering from chemical and alcohol dependency, clean two years, trying to get through each new day still intact.
And these are the songs that have come out of being saved by grace.
Salvation in Lights (INO Records) is a traveling tent-revival of an album, working its way up the banks of the Mississippi River from New Orleans through Memphis and onto points north. Recorded at the same Nashville house-studio where White Stripes/Raconteurs leader Jack White recorded Loretta Lynn's award-winning Van Lear Rose album, Farris' sophomore solo effort uses the musical language of spirituals, timeless stories of struggle, some of which are centuries-old slave spirituals, and soul to tell a uniquely redemptive story.
"When I'm playing music, it's like prayer to me," Farris says. "I'm closer to God than I ever am, outside of my prayer. That's the best way I can portray what I'm feeling in my heart."
Farris recorded Salvation in Lights with a band that included Johnny Cash's longtime bassist Dave Roe, singer Ann McCrary - daughter of the Fairfield Four's founder, the Rev. Sam McCrary and a host of top shelf Nashville musicians. Farris plants his own roots deep, down to traditional songs like "Oh Mary Don't You Weep" and "Can't No Grave Hold My Body Down." "A Change Is Gonna Come" and "I'll Take You There" come from a soul movement that identified with struggle and the ongoing search for transcendence and peace to songs that are turn-of-the-century New Orleans Gospel.
"Something about that music, it moves me like nothing else," Farris says. "Hearing somebody like Skip James or Mavis Staples sing, it's painful to me, it's spiritual, it's deep and it's enlightening. It's like somebody shedding a little bit of light on the soul, on what makes people really tick."
Original songs like "Selah! Selah!" and "The Lonely Road" evoke late-period Stax soul and Willie Mitchell's horn-drenched Hi Records funk. Some bear the influence of Tom Waits and Bob Dylan, and others find their groove somewhere between the "oom-pah" of a Crescent City funeral band and the "boom-chick" of a Johnny Cash railroad.