Mike Farris knows both the highs and lows that can come with a life in rock-n-roll.
From the highs of his early career with the Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies, the alcohol and drug abuse that often accompanies early major label success, to the depths of despair after your band breaks up and you hit rock bottom, Farris is a musician that has truly seen the extremes in life.
Though hardly proud of those lows Farris is willing to share, knowing that his new found joy has the chance to inspire others.
“That is something that my wife and I have battled over,” he says, “because it’s embarrassing. It’s just not a good thing, and is something you want to forget was ever part of your life. But you cannot deny it, and we help each other by sharing our war stories and, not to celebrate, but just to let people draw strength from (my experience) and they say, ‘Wow, if all that shit can happen to this guy and he can make it through, then I can do it too.'
“I don’t stand up and go say ‘look at me, I’m sober,’ but it’s worth it for me to admit it, because some people will come up and want to talk about it, and we will talk about it off the stage somewhere. There is always somebody, always. So, even though sometimes it’s embarrassing as hell at times for my family, it’s always worth it to me. I just want to let people know that the sooner you get through this shit, the sooner you can get to the good stuff, the real good stuff. Man, I wouldn’t go back and trade it for anything.”
These days, Farris has put his addictions and rock-n-roll life style behind him, coming through the other side stronger than ever. Having quit his habits and become a practicing Christian, Farris released his first solo album in 2002. Five years later, his follow up, Salvation in Lights, would again place Farris in the spotlight, transcending boundaries and suddenly embraced by a wide range of audiences, ranging from AAA radio to the Gospel Music Channel and the growing Americana format.
Having released Salvation in Lights, Farris capped off 2007 with an appearance at Warren Haynes’ annual Xmas Jam in Asheville, NC, an event he had silently longed to attend.
“I’ve known Warren since 1992,” Farris recalls. “He and I co-wrote some material for the Cheetah Wheelies' second record that year when we were touring with the Allman Brothers. My manager Rose was a big part in helping Gov’t Mule get started, helping (Warren’s wife) Stefani break in to the business. (Rose) had just passed away right when I got sober, like 15 days after release of Salvation.
“I was plagued when I was high, and when I got clean, everybody was really happy for me. Warren and Stef called me up and said they’d heard the record and said ‘We’re so glad you’re clean, and you sound better than ever, come on down.’
“For years I wanted to be at Xmas Jam but I just wasn’t ready and I didn’t have a reason to be there. I was stoned, out of my mind and couldn’t even function, so of course they didn’t want me there. It really meant a lot to me to be invited.”
Riding the waves of success that was Salvation in Lights, Farris would again be accepted within the inner circle of another community last September when he was named “Emerging Artist of the Year” by the Americana Music Awards.
Farris recalls, “Being embraced by those people has been really special, and somewhat crazy. As I was performing, I looked over and there’s Levon Helm with my son, who is a big Levon fan, and he’s over there having a hootenanny with Levon and they’re dancing. I saw that, and realized that was my reward. I thought, ‘That’s it, right there.’ Just seeing that, man, it was special.
“Then I walk off the stage, and I’m looking down the corridor there, and I see that Robert Plant is coming toward to me to say something. I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God, what do I say?’ I didn’t want to say, ‘Hey, I’m a big fan.” He comes up and said, ‘Way to go bro’ that was wonderful,” and I said, “Well, it’s really nice to see you out exploring and making new music. It’s nice to see you here, being down here in Nashville, we’re real happy about that.’ He said, well, ‘it was either this, or being in some fucking desert playing with some fucking prince…”
At the same period in time, Farris and his band, featuring the McCrary Sisters and the Roseland Rhythm Revue, were in the midst of a weekly series of shows, dubbed Sunday Night Shout!, at the Station Inn in Nashville. Most of the shows were recorded for SHOUT LIVE!, a 14-track collection that showcases the utter joy Farris finds in life as he preaches his passionate blend of gospel, soul, folk and rock. The performances at times epitomize the common notion of church, touching on spirit and emotions that folks from all walks of life and religious backgrounds can appreciate.
Farris recalls the process of preparing the album very fondly. “I wanted to make it sound like Sam Cooke live in Harlem Square. But, since we weren’t playing Harlem Square, we wanted the shows to be available for everybody – if you didn’t have any money, you can still come. It started out being free, and we’d pass around the bucket. That wasn’t working out to well, so we tagged on a cover, but if you still didn’t have the money, you could still come in.
“One thing we wanted,” he adds, “was to make it family friendly. We wanted kids to have access to this stuff, which was important to me. Then we got an idea of getting a sponsorship from a music store in town and they provided us boxes full of percussion instruments, shakers, rattlers, tambourines, things to beat on. At the Station Inn, they have these long tables, so every Sunday before the show, we would come in and fill the tables up with the shakers and tambourines and kids would be running all over the place. Rock-n-rollers, musicians, music executives and truck drivers and every walk of life were in there, and these little kids running around making music. It was just amazing.”
The music Farris and his band made those Sunday nights was equally amazing. The resulting live album is an effort Farris, and fans of great music everywhere, can take great pride and joy in. Though he initially says his intent is just to “give people their money’s worth,” Farris knows he’s on to something far more grand.
“I want people,” he says, “to see this music as the fire that everyone is gathering around. I’d like to see it grow and be something that grows into more than the music. If it starts to grow friendships and brothers and sisters, it can be the catalyst to pull people together and then it becomes even bigger than the music. I think that’s what the music is for. It kind of draws people to an area and then the real good stuff starts happening.”
With the rousing SHOUT LIVE!, and its vibrant predecessor Salvation in Lights, Farris has the vehicle to draw the masses to his inspirational blend of gospel. And for that, he is eternally grateful.
“I feel like I am breaking the law,” he says, “getting away with something so much fun. I am just so grateful. A lot of people I know are that way, we feel so fortunate we get to play music, good Lord”.
“I really feel that if there is one thing I can do to inspire people, it would be to say, ‘if you’re not just perfectly happy in this life, and you have to go stop everything, then go on your quest to find that place in life that makes you happy.’ I don’t think we are put here on this Earth to do anything otherwise, so that’s just what I did. I sat down one day and said “Okay, from now on, I’m just going to do what makes me happy and do what I want to do,” and everything has fallen into place. Crazy concept, huh?”
This summer, Farris and his rousing, transcending spiritual show is hitting the road, taking the SHOUT LIVE! revival across the country with stops that will include a second straight consecutive performance at Bonnaroo, as well as the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and the Hollywood Bowl, where Farris will open for the incomparable Patti LaBelle.