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‘Feel Good Music’ - A Visit With The Blind Boys Of Alabama

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True to their routine, three members of the Blind Boys of Alabama arrive for an interview in the lounge at the City Winery in Nashville in a line, with their right hands on the right shoulder of the man ahead. The youngest, guitarist and singer Joey Williams is sighted, and he’s in the lead. The longer-term members, both blind, are behind him - Ricky McKinnie and seminal member Jimmy Carter, 89 years old. I thought about at the many decades, the countless miles, covered in that manner, from vehicle to stage door to stage to hotel or boarding house, hands on shoulders, guiding the way. Yet only the way through terrestrial space. The Blind Boys, the iconic pioneers of gospel music, seem to enjoy a clear view of realms unseen by most others.

Thus began a brief but thrilling encounter with one of the great groups of American roots music as they swung through Nashville for a performance in late October. The Blind Boys of Alabama trace their origins to a secular student singing group at a Talladega school for deaf and blind African Americans in 1939. Some of them splintered off and quit school to pursue their passion for gospel music and took on their historic name in 1948, the same year they began their long recording career. Among that first group was Clarence Fountain, the longest running member, who passed away in 2018 at the age of 88. Today’s senior member, Jimmy Carter, was a boy who hung around with the first iteration of the singers and who joined formally in the early 1980s. He presents a serene, priestly figure who gets cleanly to the point about the group’s purpose and longevity.

“We believe in trying to touch lives. We have a message to give to the people,” Carter told me. “The Blind Boys have gone through a lot. A lot of people think singing is an easy job. It’s not. When people come to us and say ‘you touched me,’ all the stuff we go through is worth it all.”

Nowadays those trials may mean a flight’s delayed or the hotel room isn’t ready, mere inconveniences compared to what they dealt with touring in the Jim Crow South in the 1940s and 50s, when most hotels and restaurants excluded them. By the 60s, the Blind Boys melded their mission with Civil Rights and frequently performed on occasions with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. A network of churches and halls kept them steadily busy as staples on the gospel circuit, including bookings from Rev. Sam McCrary, leader of Nashville’s Fairfield Four, who promoted shows alongside his singing work. In the 60s and 70s, American popular music surged on the electricity that Black gospel music and musicians brought from the church house to the concert hall through R&B and soul music. The Blind Boys had offers to cross over, but even through lineup changes over many years, they always opted to stick with their mission-driven sacred music.

“Back then, you had people like Ray Charles doing their thing,” McKinnie said in our interview. “A lot of it was just gospel influence anyway. The ears were always open for different things. The Blind Boys decided to stay with gospel not because they couldn’t sing the blues. But they didn’t want to sing the blues.”

Soon however they’d meet the mainstream on their own terms. The group became an integral part of the theatrical production The Gospel At Colonus, an African American musical interpretation of a play by Sophocles. The show, which included Morgan Freeman, became a hit on Broadway and gave the Blind Boys a new platform for recognition even as it set them on a new path toward wide collaboration. The 90s and 2000s saw them record or perform with Prince, Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, Bonnie Raitt, Ben Harper, Bon Iver, Allen Toussaint, Aaron Neville, Willie Nelson, Marc Cohn, John Leventhal and many others.

McKinnie says those connections have added a lot to their creative lives. “We were getting ready to do something with Johnny Cash just as he passed away,” he said. “Life has been good. We have had opportunity to have a lot of friends reach out and want to sing with the Blind Boys.” But Carter adds an important caveat: “Now we didn’t want the public to get us mixed up. We sing gospel music. That’s all we do. We collaborate, but we don’t leave our roots.”

My first exposure to the group’s music was the remarkable 2001 album Spirit of the Century, which paired the group’s weaving and mesmerizing vocals with the hard-driving roots musicianship of guitarists David Lindley and John Hammond, bassist Danny Thompson and harmonica man Charlie Musselwhite. Singing traditional and contemporary songs, the album was deeply funky and joyful and went on to win the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album. Its innovative Tom Waits cover “Way Down In The Hole” became the theme song for HBO’s The Wire. All this means the Blind Boys have been at least as busy and in-demand in the 21st century as they were in the 20th.

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The most recent Blind Boys album has a similarly grooving band and resounding vocal vortex. Almost Home, first released in 2017 and newly distributed to streaming audio services this year by Alabama’s Single Lock Records, features songwriting collaborations with luminaries of current roots music, including Valerie June, the North Mississippi All-Stars, and Randall Bramblett, who wrote the title cut with the singers. Then in July, Single Lock released a Record Store Day special single of “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free,” a signature song from the career of Nina Simone, with only a single instrument accompanying the voices, that of Béla Fleck’s banjo. It’s a brilliant combination of sounds and spirit.

Also this summer, a series of historic recordings appeared without fanfare or reviews on the music services. The eight releases from Sonorous Records appear to be from the 1950s and 60s, but there are no notes or publicity connected to them, and that’s not the only way the collections are problematic. The group disavows them as having been released without their consultation or compensation, an old story in Black American music. Inquiries to Sonorous for comment went unanswered. Nevertheless, the tracks are worth a visit, because we can hear that the Blind Boys have been masterful at their electrified, high-intensity rhythmic form of gospel for decades.

For their tenacity and unflagging quality as performers and arrangers, the Blind Boys have earned nine Grammy Awards plus the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and induction into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. They’ve performed for three different presidents at the White House. Clearly though, their fulfilment derives from more esoteric rewards and the pursuit of an artistic purpose and voice.

I asked them what people who don’t know gospel should know about gospel. Carter and McKinnie say it almost at the same time: “It’s feel good music.”

“The main thing we want people to realize is that we can take any song and make it a Blind Boys song. That’s what’s important,” says McKinnie. “Because we want people to know why we’re here. It’s not all about the song. it’s about what we stand for - that disability doesn’t have to be a handicap. When it comes to music, what comes from the heart reaches the heart. And that what makes a difference.”