Mike Farris: His Inspirational Road to Grammy Gold
The year was 2011. The weather was bright and sunny with a chilly, northerly 70-degree breeze, indicating our wintertime. Our good friends asked whether we’d be interested in joining them on the Sandy Beaches Cruise leaving in a few days out of Ft. Lauderdale. For the unaware, Sandy Beaches is a week-long, music-themed Holland America cruise headlined annually by one of my favorite rock and blues musicians, Delbert McClinton. Because a South Florida ritual is having two bags always packed and waiting in the foyer for last minute cruise invitations, my wife and I were heading off to the port in a flash. Little did I know what life-changing delights we’d be experiencing in the days ahead.
As usual, we were having a magical time on our cruise. And why not? Our only responsibility was finding our way from our cabin to the several restaurants and lounges offering limitless food and drink day and night, and to the various music venues scattered around the ship, and then making it back to our cabin at night’s end. Actually, that was the tough part, but that’s another story.
The Music is the story.
Besides Delbert, who was his usual brilliant self, we saw shows featuring incredible artists like Tommy Castro, Tab Benoit, and Cajun superstar, Wayne Toups, supported by their superb bands. It was like sailing along in some remarkable, incredulous dream. Everywhere we heard horns sweetly blaring and guitars smoothly strumming and the angelic harmonies of the McCrary Sisters. And then, some guy named Mike Farris appeared on stage. “Who is Mike Farris,” we inquired. “Maybe we should head back to our cabin for the night,” I asked my wife, “if we can find it?” Her reply came quickly, “Not a chance, Ponce de Leon, we’re staying put.” Putting aside her dig, it was my good fortune that we took the less risky path and stayed for the set.
I’m not just a music buff, I’m a music nut, and I attend countless live shows each and every year across many musical genres and venues. Still to this day, I can confidently say I have never seen anyone like Mike Farris. That glorious night he was the bandleader, borrowing some musicians from Delbert and others. He was the lead conductor and cheerleader, pulling every note out of every single player on stage. And he was the lead singer who blew us away like the stiffest of Caribbean trade winds. Mike has extraordinary charm and grit to go along with his incredible voice. He transports his audience, making us feel as if we’ve been taken far away, maybe to a sultry tent somewhere in the long ago deep south, where we’re experiencing authentic rock ‘n blues infused with gospel. Simply put, Mike Farris is the most charismatic performer I have ever seen on stage, period.
By the final night of the cruise, word had gotten out and Farris’ show had to be relocated to the main stage in the big theater. The place was packed, including several members of the other bands, and the joint was jumping. One more time, he just blew us the audience away performing classics we’ve heard over the years, such as: Can’t No Grave Hold My Body Down and Take Me (I’ll Take You There). And he mixed in familiar folk and country masterworks like Will the Circle Be Unbroken and Green, Green Grass of Home.
No one’s ever belted them out like Farris and every song was better than the last. I’ll never forget the entire audience swaying and singing along through joyful tears when he closed his final set with This Little Light of Mine, having brought several of the band member’s children on stage for the celebration.
Post-Cruise, The Lasting Impact.
Since that memorable week in 2011, we’ve traveled around the country to catch Mike Farris on tour, including shows at the World Financial Center in downtown Manhattan, a few times at the intimate Iridium Jazz Club in Midtown, at the Franklin Theatre in Franklin, Tennessee and most recently in the incredible natural setting of Chatt Hills in Serenbe, Georgia (a short ride outside of Atlanta). The Chatt Hills show was the first time I’d seen Mike without his band, just his guitar, and that voice . . . Oh, that voice. While it seems implausible that anyone can top perfection, he’s done it, getting better each and every time I’ve seen him perform.
As a Throomers aside, every quarter we’ll be getting an inside look at one of these smaller, intimate, exquisite music clubs in interesting towns and cities around the country, so be sure not to miss what should be a noteworthy feature.
In the past year, I’ve had the good fortune to meet Mike, who is one of the most compelling rock, blues and gospel artists in the music world today, and have spoken with his beautiful wife, Julie, (by bothering them incessantly until they finally cracked) and I’ve gotten to know more of their story.
Let’s dig in deeper and learn about the man, how he became “the man,” the woman alongside the man, and what we can expect from this rising rock star in 2019 and the years ahead.
Life, the Human Condition.
Mike’s formative years are a relatively familiar story. One of starts and stops, triumphs and setbacks, rises and falls, hitting a wall hard, taking the time needed to heal before eventually picking back up and regaining the strength needed to push ahead once more. However long this process takes there’s no giving up in throomersville. We press on no matter what, and then, one luminous day a resilient energy finally emerges and our hero finally crashes through whatever wall had formerly immobilized them.
It’s about “patience and trusting the source,” as our sculptor friend, Nnamdi, has often said. This is the human condition. We were never promised a smooth pathway. What do we think all those Mississippi Blues songs were speaking to? They’re about the many before us who’ve traversed this same rocky terrain.
When life gets too difficult many collapse, give up, never again to rise up off the floor. They never get to experience their end game- the “why” in the question, “why was I even born in the first place.” We compassionately understand and grieve for them. Then there are others who’ve pushed on in the face of such difficult circumstances, self-imposed or otherwise, to a better life.
Rarer still are those who’ve never stopped searching until they’ve unearthed their “why,” their source-given purpose. These are the people we most celebrate because within their stories lies the genuine inspiration of life itself. One of our essential missions at Throomers is to identify this power in some and pass it on to others.
The Lost Years.
Mike Farris’ higher purpose was always to be on stage performing, sharing his extraordinary energy and talents with audiences worldwide. Anyone who’s seen him live is certain of this. But it wasn’t always like that.
He was born in 1968 in Winchester, Tennessee. It’s not surprising that a man infused with such soul hails from a region infused with such soulful musical roots. Things seemed to be moving along smoothly until his parents divorced when he was 11 years old. That’s when the uncertainty set in and the terrain changed to rocky. Dealing with such trauma left him feeling alone, confused and lacking direction. Like too often happens in similar circumstances, the boy began filling his void by experimenting with alcohol and drugs. The temporary high felt good and the experimenting became routine and then habitual. By the age of 15, he was a full-fledged alcoholic and drug abuser. It gets worse.
In a 2015 interview in Rolling Stone magazine, Farris revealed that in those wobbly days he’d made a series of bad decisions. Such as, leaving his mother and four sisters behind, instead choosing homelessness. And running cocaine across state lines, resulting in spending time in and out of jail. At the age of 21, the broken boy nearly died of an overdose. Running out of options, desperate and at the end of the line, he was living in a park in Knoxville when he began to pray as a daily habit. Then, one day, he looked to the sky and pleaded, “please show me where I’m supposed to be.”
Farris recalls this as the seminal moment when he drove a crack into the wall, reopening a tremulous connection to his source. The answer came quickly. He showed up the next day on his absentee father’s doorstep in Nashville. His father blessedly took him in and not long after handed him a guitar. Within a year, he’d written his first song, Gypsy Lullaby, which would later be recorded by his blues-wailing band, Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies. His connection to his source was amplifying.
In 1990, with his connection to his source amplifying, Farris became a founding member and lead singer of the Wheelies in 1990. Per the same Rolling Stones interview, he declared to band member Rick White that they would turn into something big, because just like the Blues Brothers (of Saturday Night Live fame) they were on “a mission from God.” He was prescient as they soon became a wildly popular act appearing at festivals alongside Blues Traveler, Dave Matthews, Sheryl Crow, and others.
But he became restless with the festival grind, wanting instead to develop his heartfelt interest in gospel music. After releasing three albums the band fell apart. During the 90s, among other projects, he fronted Stevie Ray Vaughn’s dynamic band, Double Trouble, before beginning his solo career in 2001.
The starts and stops continued, however, and in the following decade he took a break from music to finally rid himself of his barriers. Trusting the source one more time, and with his wife Julie’s stoic support, Farris entered rehab and in 2011 finally cleaned out the toxins once and for all. These included pain pills, opioids he’d been prescribed for his back problems. This began the most productive phase of his career which continues to swell into the present time. Perhaps not coincidentally, this was the same period we discovered this musical genius on our fateful cruise through the Caribbean.
While still battling his demons, Farris managed to release a handful of compilations during the 21st century’s first decade, including 2008’s Shout! Live. A recording of a show he played at the classic Station Inn in Nashville, it catches his true essence and the excitement he creates when he’s on stage. My personal take? It is absolutely fabulous and should be in the flowing music stream of every fan of this genre.
The Grammy Years.
Since his sobriety it’s just gotten better and better as testified to by the 2014 release, Shine for All the People. This gem earned him his first Grammy Award (Best Roots Gospel album).
His most recent release, Silver & Stone, came public in September 2018. The title refers to Julie’s wedding ring, and it’s a celebration of their 23 years of marriage and her steadfastness through his years of struggling with addiction and alcoholism. Along with a most notable band, Farris displays the driving energy of a confident man whose once lost life has been renewed, a grateful man fully recovered from his near-death experience. The critical feedback has been glowing. Marty Stuart of Rolling Stone Country says, “Country and gospel music is in dire need of some pure heartfelt soul right now. He’s like a secret weapon, loaded with soul.” Others have said they can clearly hear the soulful intonations of the late, great Sam Cooke and Otis Redding.
A melding of the spiritual and the earthly, Farris says the album is about “reaching something better without actually trying.” A song he wrote for his son called Golden Wings delivers this message at “a pivotal point in his life, with so many options in front of him.” It has a dual message,” he continues,“something to say to a young person who is looking for answers, but also a reminder to myself to be free and open to all the possibilities of life.” It addresses that same urgent cry he once made to that Knoxville sky, “please show me where I’m supposed to be.”
Another powerful song on the discis a tribute to the legendary gospel icon and beloved mentor, Mavis Staples. Truly, all twelve tracks here are deserving of airtime, over and over and over.
The Final Cut.
Speaking of “over,” it’s time to wrap up this musicalcruise, so we’ll disembark with the following. It seems to us that Mike Farris’ latest workis themed in surrendering to the source, expressing humility and gratitude, and finding earthly strength through the power of love. This precisely describes the place where Farris and his family reside today. A perfectly good place to be. And a perfectly good place to stop.