I’VE NEVER SEEN Mike Farris’s eyes. Not once during our interview at the 2009 Bonnaroo music festival in Manchester, Tennessee did he take off his green-tinted sunglasses, and if you Google his name, you’d only find photos of his face covered by dark eyewear, long hair or the shadow of his trademark fedora.
It doesn’t matter, really. Even if his face were naked, he wouldn’t look me in the eye for longer than a few seconds. He’ll often look away, as if distracted, or scanning for some particular spot on the ground of the festival’s sandy press area, squinting in spite of his glasses, his fedora and the overcast sky.
“I thought it went great,” he says of his performance just an hour earlier, though he sounds unconvinced. There’s a pause, and then: “The band was a bit sluggish, but…” He trails off.
“This is the quietest crowd we’ve ever played in front of,” he starts again, preferring not to talk about specific members in the Roseland Rhythm revue, his backing band of nearly a dozen musicians. After all, the band’s having a few problems, but “we’re still workin’ on it,” Farris assures me, grinning a bit. “It’s a sensitive subject.”
Yet he talks openly—willingly, even—about his past life as a drug addict and alcoholic: “You’re always searching,” he says, “and everything’s confusing to you—it was to me, anyway—I couldn’t figure out what direction I was headed.”
“The hardest, really the hardest part of it all, is not hitting bottom. It’s just sitting there and dangling… wondering when you’re gonna die, when you’re gonna make it out.”
He then describes the moment when he found God: a moment he sets in a Tennessee hospital years ago, having wound up there one morning after overdosing on a drug he can’t remember while living in a public park he doesn’t know the name of. It’s a period in his life he refers to as “when I was high.
Yet during all that, he says, “the hardest, really the hardest part of it all, is not hitting bottom. It’s just sitting there and dangling… wondering when you’re gonna die, when you’re gonna make it out.”
But he did make it out. After years of rehabilitation, he began singing professionally in 1990, when he formed the Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies. The blues-rock group enjoyed a number of hits before they disbanded nearly a decade later; Farris then worked with Peaceful Knievel and, for a time, fronted Stevie Ray Vaughan’s backing band, Double Trouble.
It was just two years ago that he formed the Roseland Rhythm Revue, made up of local artists from the Tennessee area.
“It was really easy, actually,” he says of the band’s inception. “There’s a real music community there that exists outside of country music.”
When people asked who was in his band, “I started tellin’ people, ‘Well, we got this guy, this guy, this guy… and we got the McCrary sisters,’ y’know. And people’d go: ‘You got the McCrary sisters?!’ I say, ‘Yeah, you know those guys?’ And they’d go, ‘Yeah, of course!’”
The joke, of course, is that Farris was bluffing; the McCrary sisters had never really existed as a group before the Roseland Rhythm Revue: “There’s something about that name that just sounds great,” Farris says.
Culminating their two years’ worth of work, Farris and the Revue released Salvation in Lights earlier this year. The album has received encouraging reviews and given the band some well-deserved notoriety in the Southern rock scene.
“It’s been unbelievable,” he says. “People eat it up.” They’ve played small bars in southern American and bigger venues in California: “Everywhere we go, man. I already got a following in Spain.”
“You just really don’t believe that you can do it… I’m tellin’ ya, if I can do it, anyone can do it. I’m extremely weak.”
What’s attracting audiences is the music—and it isn’t even their own. A significant portion of the band’s repertoire consists of big-band covers of American folk songs like “O Mary Don’t You Weep” or “Can’t No Grave Hold My Body Down”.
“This music is where it all started,” Farris says. “Everybody’s forgettin’ about this stuff—and this stuff is powerful.”
He cites that kind of music as part of what inspired him to get better—to get sober, after a number of relapses and years of addiction.
“O Mary was one of those songs that was with me when I needed music,” he says. “That’s a special one for me.”
He pauses for a moment, fidgeting—not out of nervousness, but out of habit. He looks like a man who’s grown up on drugs.
“You just really don’t believe that you can do it,” he says, finally. “I’m tellin’ ya, if I can do it, anyone can do it.” He stresses the word anyone, because—in his own words—“I’m extremely weak.”
Maybe that’s why he chooses such strong songs to sing, and why he reaches out to America’s past for direction in his life. Maybe that’s why, since he found God, he’s worked for two decades reviving classic American music about overcoming obstacles and hope for the future.
“It’s still a formative thing for me,” he says, always fidgeting. “I’m still figuring out where I’m gonna go with this.”
Photos courtesy of Michael Fraiman.