This past February in Los Angeles, Mike Farris found himself in an unfamiliar place: standing entirely clearheaded onstage at the Grammy Awards, accepting a trophy for Best Roots Gospel Album for Shine for All the People. It was an especially meaningful victory for the soul singer, who just four years earlier had gotten sober for the first time since he was 15.
“It is validating,” Farris tells Rolling Stone Country. “There are a lot of people who try to downplay it, but that’s the top of the heap for music. Which caught me completely off-guard. I wasn’t expecting it at all.” Seated outside of a Nashville Music Row café, he’s dressed in a black cowboy hat and sunglasses, talking softly about the higher power he credits for that natural high. “It was a moment of God. . . where he takes you to the mountaintop and lets you see this moment of triumph. But then, immediately, he’s like, ‘OK, now, come on. Let’s get back to work.’ And you’re back in the valley. That’s where the good stuff happens, where you get to lift up others and encourage them. That’s what we’re here to do.”
Since launching a gospel music career in 2002, Farris — who made a name for himself as the leader of blues-wailers the Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies in the Nineties — has been entirely committed to elevating his brothers and sisters through powerhouse live performances, gaining famous fans like Marty Stuart and Buddy Miller along the way. This weekend, Farris and his Roseland Rhythm Revue band will launch a nationwide tour with a sold-out show in Nashville.
“Country and gospel music is in dire need of some pure heartfelt soul right now,” says Stuart, who uses the phrase “solid musical citizen” to describe Farris. “He’s like a secret weapon — he’s loaded with soul. He sings notes that would make Patsy Cline and Mavis Staples cry and shout. He’s got it and that’s all there is to it. He just keeps on doing his thing singing songs the way he feels them. He’s melting hearts with his voice one at a time.”
For most of the Tennessee native’s life, however, it was Farris who needed the helping hand.
“I was already a drug addict and alcoholic when I was 15. I was running cocaine over the state lines from Huntsville, Alabama. In and out of jail already, just a broken boy trying to find his way,” he says.
Soon, he followed in the footsteps of his absentee father and left home, leaving behind his mother and four brothers. He ended up in Knoxville, Tennessee, living in a park. Dejected, he turned to what he says was his “only hope” — the off chance that there really was a God. “I started praying and pretending maybe this God is real. I had a mantra: ‘Show me where I’m supposed to be.’ And I ended up here in Nashville, living with my dad.”
His father had a guitar and Farris cleaned up enough to learn to play. One morning he awoke with a complete song written in his head — future Wheelies track “Gypsy Lullaby” — and was convinced God had placed music in his path.
“I was already a drug addict and alcoholic when I was 15.”
After answering guitarist Rick White’s ad in search of a soul singer, they formed the Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies. “This is going to be way bigger than you realize,” Farris recalls telling White, convinced that, like, the Blues Brothers, they were on a mission from God. In a year’s time, the Wheelies were signed to Atlantic Records by label impresario Ahmet Ertegun and hit the road. They became a staple on the H.O.R.D.E. package tour — the jam-based answer to Lollapalooza — playing the fest three times, with artists like Blues Traveler, Dave Matthews Band and Sheryl Crow.
“All these bands were on the bubble getting ready to explode, except for us,” Farris says. “It was all because I was strung out and just not focusing on my craft.”
Still, the Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies became a must-see live band, distinguished by Farris’ heavenly voice and the group’s gritty mix of Southern rock and soul. Songs like “Shakin’ the Blues” and “Ride the Tide” made impressions on the rock charts, and the Wheelies released three albums with Farris before breaking up.
“I stuck it out with those guys longer than I probably should have,” he says now. “After the first record, I was pretty bored. I was restless and wanted to get going and explore other stuff.” Specifically, the gospel music he discovered on the road. “When I went to Memphis for the first time, I went to a record store and found a Mahalia Jackson record, and I was like, ‘This is the music that moves me,'” Farris says. “That became my passion for the next 20 years. When we were on the tour bus, that’s all I’d listen to.”
But after the Wheelies disbanded, Farris gave up performing altogether and attempted to get sober. While he was kicking drugs and alcohol, he’d play gospel music around the house. Then, at the suggestion of his mentor and manager Rose McGathy, who was in the final stages of cancer, he started singing again.
“Here she was in the twilight moments of her existence, and here I was with this rebirth,” Farris says. He went on to record 2007’s Salvation in Lights, which caught Sony’s ear and garnered Farris another record deal and the Americana Music Award for New/Emerging Artist. “Everything just blew up,” he says.
Yet Farris was still self-medicating. This time, with pain pills, following surgery to repair two discs in his back.
“I just felt like, I’m good, I’m working, I’m focused. I’m not going out to get a pack of cigarettes and staying gone for four days,” he says. “And my shit is coming from a doctor. It legitimized it somehow.”
Eventually, the constant excuses burned him out and he fessed up to his wife Julie, with whom he’ll celebrate 20 years of marriage on Christmas Eve.
“I was going to get pills one day, and I called my wife and was lying to her. I said I was going to my mom’s or whatever. And that’s what drug addicts do. We’re fucking manipulative,” he says. “I called her and I said, ‘I’m going to get pills. That’s what I’ve been doing. I’m going to come home, I’m going to give these to you, and I need you to help me get off these things. Then I’m going in for help.’ It was the toughest thing I’ve ever done, man.”
Four years later, after a stint in rehab, he is completely sober and finds himself at the most productive point of his career. When he was putting together the songs for Shine for All the People, Farris landed on what he calls “the cornerstone” of the record — “Mercy Now,” by singer, songwriter and fellow recovering addict Mary Gauthier.
“I tried to sing it for my wife, but I couldn’t get past the first two words. I just fall apart every time,” Farris says of the spiritual. “She’s like, ‘I don’t know what it is, but if it’s doing that to you, you’d better [record it].”
“Real deal, rotgut gospel” is how Gauthier describes Farris’s version of her song. “[It’s] the kind of gospel singing that can make even non-believers fall to their knees and praise the light of love shining down on them,” she says. “Mike’s raise-the-rafters vocal talent combined with his passion and intensity make his voice the dream voice for this song. I absolutely love the way he sings it.”
Like Gauthier says, “Mercy Now,” and Shine for All the People as a whole, is able to captivate all music fans, even those who might have preconceived notions about spiritual music. Interestingly, Farris blames any stigma associated with gospel on organized religion. Although a Christian, he refuses to attend church. Instead, he worships onstage with fans, or at home with his wife and their 10 dogs.
“Church is when we’re together sharing shit that we’re going through on this Earth with each other. Sharing our triumphs as well,” he says. “I’m totally against religion.”
It’s an interesting dichotomy: a gospel singer who doesn’t go to Sunday service.
“Forget religion. We’re talking about just washing each other’s feet. Because that’s what Jesus told us to do,” Farris says, going on to explain his Grammy-winning album’s title. “It’s for all the people, not just some of the people. The Grammy is fine, but the big mission is helping somebody make a decision to become a better human being. That’s why we do what we do.”