Although the Southern soul recordings at Rick Hall’s Muscle Shoals-based Fame Studios paved the way for Candi Staton, the world over knows her best as the disco diva that almost single-handedly snagged the royal title of Disco Queen from Gloria Gaynor with her 1976 million-selling hit “Young Hearts Run Free” and its immediate follow-up hit “Victim.” But, strip those songs down to their lyrics and you’re left with the ingredients of the blues. Do the same for her bare vocals, you feel her emotive angst and you sense a woman fighting for her freedom from dirt bags who misused her heart. In the nick of time, the Doobies sent her a memo that Jesus was just alright and she got her healing after abandoning disco for gospel music, a tenure that ran a long course of two decades.
In the mid-Eighties, Little Milton sent out the fax that the blues was alright and Staton started contemplating a pilgrimage back into secular territory. 2006’s His Hands proved to be such a glorious return to the down home blues that it left her fans hungry for more of the lovelorn stuff. Though the album sped past the public radar, His Hands was a definite comeback and enough muscle to spark an expedient follow-up. Two years later, she reunited in Nashville with Mark Nevers of alt-country band Lambchop to cut Who’s Hurting Now? for the UK-based Honest Jon’s label, but the album never reached U.S. soil, reportedly due to EMI’s abrupt cancellation of the label’s distribution deal. After much prayer and supplication, the album finally sees the light of day after Malden, MA record distributor Forced Exposure picked up the baton.
Staton still knows her way around a mean lyric, as she creeps around the words with grace and perfect precision. When the notes call for a little more soul, she pours it on. Her signature rasp has refined with age. Her powerhouse gospel testimonies and Mavis Staples-sounding vamps are as convincing as ever, thanks to her perseverance through three failed marriages and years of abuse. The Memphis-steamed title cut, a perfect example of her working at her finest, smells like sweet revenge as she laughs up a big win over a no-good lover: “You hurt me bad, I was the best thing you ever had,” she sings out. As the looping chorus enters the picture, Staton – using Betty Wright sauciness – blurts out a passionate: “I got over you.” She copies the same template on the Aretha-styled, mid-tempo ballad “I Don’t Know,” a song penned by “Young Hearts” writer Dave Crawford. On standout lyrics, Staton exercises plenty of scorn while preaching about her uncertainty over her lover’s questionable whereabouts. She sings: “Woman ain’t no good all alone/cause a house without a man sho’ ain’t no home/If you ask me where he roam/I have to tell you I don’t know.” In the hands of Candi Staton, all of this sounds like gospel music.
Who’s Hurting Now? is peppered with some of Staton’s finest work in years. That’s because she’s surrounded by an exceptionally versatile band, one able to bounce from country bluegrass to Memphis soul. The blues-drenched songwriting, heavy with emotional vitriol and tried-and-true composition, is also a perfect match for Staton’s execution. “Lonely Don’t” shimmers with majestic country-folk storytelling. “Mercy Now” has the gravitas of the Staple Singers’ social justice anthems, while the remake of Bonnie Raitt’s “I Feel the Same” is dipped in Ann Peebles hot sauce. Staton, a talented writer on her own, even contributes marvelous work to the song list with the country gospel-flavored “Dust on My Pillow.”
It is with painful regret that two years after its original UK run most of us are hearing this good music for the first time, but so what? Better late than never, right? But, like its predecessor, Who’s Hurting Now? could very well fly past the public eye. What a terrible mistake we would be making. Highly recommended.
By J. Matthew Cobb