Mike Farris, to coin a cliche, knows a lot about a lot. The former Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelie frontman has battled addiction, the loss of his father and a looming record label debt — and that’s all within the past few years. Still, 2014’s “Shine For All The People” proved to be a turning point in the singer’s career. Not only did the album land on various year-end best-of lists, but the set earned him a Best Roots Gospel Album Grammy earlier this year. He’ll be at the Weinberg Center on Friday night, performing songs that he calls “The Soul of America.” We recently caught up with him to talk about the impact “Shine” had on both his professional career and personal life, what it was like working with Stevie Ray Vaughn’s backing band Double Trouble, and why he holds no grudges against the major record label system.
I also write for the website PopMatters. We named “Shine For All The People” the No. 1 R&B record of 2014. In the blurb for the year-end list, I wrote that “these songs feel like a victory lap, a much-earned breakthrough that announces the 46-year-old as a head-turner in the soul/gospel lexicon.” Did that record feel like a breakthrough to you, too? Why or why not?
It did, but on a more personal level. I had gone through the process of re-capturing sobriety and losing my father to cancer and so with that came long periods where I had to put the record aside and deal with those things. So, I suppose the term “victory lap” is quite apropos.
You earned a Grammy this year for “Shine For All The People.” How did that feel? From what I’ve read, it was your first Grammy for something all your own — when you were working on the record, did you know you had something special? How so?
It’s an incredible feeling, even now, as you can imagine. After all, a Grammy is an amazing feather in the cap. During the making of “Shine” I actually started thinking about a Grammy as a goal for this record. I had never really done that before, so I suppose maybe I had subconsciously began to believe it was within reach or the time was right. I don’t know, but, looking back, it definitely became a goal of mine.
There are a lot of versions of other people’s songs on “Shine For All The People.” How did you pick the songs you picked? How did you determine how much of it you wanted to be your own work?
My antenna is always up but for this album, instead of me finding songs, they were finding me. I think because I was going through a new door in life with my sobriety and the loss of my father, those things opened me up so that the songs could come into my life. A lot of those songs started as simple, very personal mantras for me, such as “The Lord Will Make A Way Somehow,” and “Something Keeps Telling Me.” So, to answer your question, in this case, I really didn’t pick the songs at all. As far as the difference between reworked songs and my own, my goal is always to make the best music I possibly can, whether it’s my own or not.
You were the leader of Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies at one point. What made you want to set out on your own as a solo artist?
SCW was the first band I had really ever been in, and I really just wanted to go explore other music and musicians. Simple as that.
I’ve also read that you were once in Stevie Ray Vaughn’s legendary backing band Double Trouble. What was that experience like? How did you wind up playing with them and then what led to your departure?
I met Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon in Seattle around 2000 and they had just made an incredible album, all with special guests, such as Susan Tedeschi, Dr. John and Jonny Lang, but they had no singer to tour with. From the jump, we hit it off and I worked with them for a couple of years. We continue to do things even now. Last year, I sang with them at the inaugural Austin City Limits Hall Of Fame Induction ceremony where they were inducted, along with Stevie (Ray Vaughn) and Willie Nelson. The year before that, we got together for their induction into the Musician’s Hall Of Fame. Chris, Tommy and Reese are cherished family and will remain so.
You’ve worked a lot with crowdfunding campaigns. What type of role do you think that plays in the trajectory of a musician’s career these days? Do you think that’s better than the traditional role a record label plays in the distribution of music? Why or why not?
I have always been on the side of the traditional record company model, when it’s done right. When labels were strong, they would invest money back into the business by funding up-and-coming artists which would allow them to develop their music, their live chops, their studio prowess, everything. When SCW left Atlantic Records, we owed them a million dollars. Tell me where someone can go today and have somebody bet a million bucks on you and if it doesn’t pan out, you walk with no debt. It was a great deal and worked amazingly well for a really long time and cultivated some of the greatest artists of all time.
Who are some of your major influences and why?
Being from the South, I grew up with a lot of great music around me, and it was a fairly wide spectrum at the time — Hank Williams, The Staple Singers, lots of rock stuff. I realize now that everything I loved growing up, no matter what style, had the gilded thread of black gospel or blues woven into it, whether it be Jimmie Rodgers or Jimmy Page or Jimmy Ruffin. Also, anyone who is coming from an enlightened place and has the desire to inspire, motivate and move people to become better human beings has always been high on my list.
Who are you a fan of, musically, these days? Anyone we should know about that we might not already know about?
My friend, Foy Vance, continues to inspire. I’m really diggin’ on some Rufus with Chaka Khan right now. I love meditation music. Blown away again by Brian Wilson. Other than that, stuff I hear at black churches on Sundays is my everything. Nothing inspires me more than the sound of the spirit singing!
You’ve spent a lot of your life out on the road, performing. Do you have any favorite cities and venues? What makes them your favorite?
What makes a place special is the people, the fire they have to live life, enjoy themselves, express their fervor for life. Great local food is big for us. I love the Carolinas. The low country does something to me. Northern California is special for us. Texas means a lot to my family, my soul. Western and central Canada has become a place near and dear to me. Of course, Spain holds a huge place in our hearts.
And finally, what can we expect from your show here in Frederick at the Weinberg? A lot of stuff off “Shine For All The People”? Old songs? New songs? A night to remember?
We are bringing a show with us that we put together for performing arts centers, orchestras and such called “Mike Farris Sings The Soul Of America,” which is a collection of classic soul songs that we are carrying across the country right now, celebrating this rich, truly original American art form. We’ll be sure serve a decent helping of our own songs as well!