You just can't grasp the powerful delivery and deep soulfulness of the Blind Boys of Alabama until hearing them live in concert.
While I'm not particularly religious, I felt pretty damn full of the spirit when I first saw them at the Georgia Theatre in Athens 10 years ago. They launched into a terrific reworking of "Amazing Grace," singing the lyrics over the chords and melodies of the old standard "House of the Rising Sun." The rich texture of their harmonies and the emotion within their voices moved me. I raised my right hand and waved it high by the time they paraded through the crowd.
Led by founding member Clarence Fountain, the Blind Boys initially formed as a student act in the 1930s at the Talladega Institute for the Deaf and Blind in Alabama. Various lineups toured churches and festivals off-and-on through the years before breaking into the mainstream.
Longtime vocalist Jimmy Carter, a performer who can seemingly hold a high note forever, stepped into the bandleader role in 2008 after Fountain was sidelined by diabetes. The current lineup features Carter alongside singers Bishop Billy Bowers and Ben Moore and bandmates Eric "Ricky" McKinnie (drums, vocals), Joey Williams (guitar, vocals), Tracy Pierce (bass), and Peter Levin (organ).
The group participated in Lee Breuer's grand Gospel at Colonus at the Gaillard Auditorium during this year's Spoleto Festival USA.
They hit the road this month in support of a new collection titled Take the High Road. It's the first traditional country-gospel album of their 70-year career. Country songwriter Jamey Johnson co-produced the album at RCA's Studio A in Nashville, welcoming a team of ace Music City musicians and country luminaries.
The title track starts off with the familiar tones of the Oak Ridge Boys before it kicks in with the first chorus. There's a cheerful back-and-forth between various Blind Boys and the Oak Ridge fellas from the verses to the chorus, but it's a mild rapport. "I Was a Burden" comes off like a Lee Ann Womack song with a little touch of Blind Boys around the fringes. Hank Williams Jr.'s croaky rendition of "I Saw the Light" — a gospel standard made into a country hit by his late father — is upbeat but a bit corny. Occasionally, there's a strange contrast between sweet four-part harmonies from the Blind Boys and the twang-filled vocals of the country characters.
Vince Gill's soulful performance on the funky "Can You Give Me a Drink?" (of holy water, not booze) complements the Blind Boys' harmonies nicely, though. The group's "oooohs" back Willie Nelson's tender singing on the dusty acoustic ballad "Family Bible." Johnson's own low-toned croon is reminiscent of Jim Reeves on the waltzy rendition of the old hymn "Have Thine Own Way, Lord," the finest track of the bunch, replete with plenty of Floyd Cramer-style slip-note piano and a beautiful a cappella outro.
"These two traditions are very similar," Carter stated in a press announcement of the country and gospel on Take the High Road. "There's a lot of common ground in all kinds of music, and it keeps getting closer together. We want to sing good music, no matter what kind it is."
Amen to that. I remember feeling lifted up when I first heard the group in concert. Much of Take the High Road reminded me of that experience.
The Blind Boys of Alabama perform at the Melting Point in Athens, Ga., on Fri. Aug. 26. They'll be at the Lincoln Theater in Raleigh on Thurs. Oct. 6, at the Orange Peel in Asheville on Fri. Oct. 7, and at the McGlohon Theater in Charlotte on Sat. Oct. 8. Visit blindboys.com for more.