Review : Blind Boys of Alabama - Take the High Road
PopmattersOf the 75,000 albums released in 2010, roughly umpteen million were gospel tributes. Patty Griffin, Lizz Wright, Mavis Staples, and the duo of Gary Lucas and Dean Bowman all cut NPR-friendly albums that notably included old hymns and spirituals. Their gospel covers tended towards well-performed curios, though occasionally the musicians managed to do something genuinely new with their source material. (Not surprisingly, none of these albums equaled the thrilling 2009 Tompkins Square gospel compilation Fire in My Bones, cherry-picked from 60 years of obscure recordings.)
The Blind Boys of Alabama have plenty to do with this gospel glut. Last decade, the group, which formed in 1939 (!), released a string of high-profile albums full of old gospel chestnuts and covers of young hipsters like Tom Waits and Prince. They hired famous guest stars and big shot producers, won a string of Grammys, and added musical credibility to TV shows The Wire and Lost. Even if you don’t listen to much gospel, you’d probably recognize their craggy, impassioned vocal harmonies.
Take the High Road is their country gospel album, and it checks most of the boxes we’ve come to expect from the Boys’ late-career resurgence. The famous guest stars include the Oak Ridge Boys, Willie Nelson, and Hank Williams, Jr. rocking his pappy’s “I Saw the Light”. The big shot producers include broad-minded traditionalist Jamey Johnson; he also drawls “Have Thine Own Way, Lord” and contributes the original tune “Lead Me Home”, which closed his debut album. The Blind Boys’ band gets help from hard-working country session players like Cowboy Eddie Long on pedal steel and Moose Brown on keyboards. They’re top-notch like you’d hope Nashville’s finest would be—personable, modestly virtuosic, and instinctively able to stay out of the way....full text
CountryweeklyCountry music and old-time gospel music have borrowed from each other for decades, but rarely have the two styles blended as flawlessly as on a new offering from one of gospel music’s most revered groups.
The Blind Boys of Alabama formed in 1939, and have now teamed with fellow Alabaman Jamey Johnson, who serves as producer here, for their first country-gospel project. That the Blind Boys are still striving to inhabit new musical territory after more than seven decades of recording is commendable, and their reverence for country music is evident as they join Hank Williams Jr. on the classic “I Saw the Light” or quietly enhance Willie Nelson’s vocal on “Family Bible.”
Led by one of the group’s two surviving original members, Jimmy Carter, the Boys’ fiery, deeply soulful gospel rendition of “Take the High Road” gets a profusion of harmony courtesy of the Oak Ridge Boys. Jamey takes a turn behind the mic on an earthy version of “Have Thine Own Way, Lord,” while Vince Gill and Lee Ann Womack guest on the set as well, resulting in an experience that is both musically and spiritually inspiring....full text
CrawdaddyGospel music is one of the pillars of American popular song. The powerful stage-shows of early rockers like Little Richard owed much to the African American church, and singers like Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, and Luther Vandross all got their start singing in church. Bands of the rock, country, and bluegrass genres have all borrowed melodies from hymns.
The Blind Boys of Alabama, formerly known as the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, sing traditional African American gospel music in the jubilee style, marked by passionate lead singers, powerful sanctified harmonies, and a call-and-response style that invites listeners to join in and raise the roof in praise of the Lord. The Blind Boys were actually boys when they started singing in the choir of the Alabama Institute for the Blind, and the best singers in the choir formed a quartet in the late 1930s that included current lead singer Jimmy Carter, George Scott, and the legendary Clarence Fountain.
For most of their career they toured Southern churches almost literally singing for their supper. Early singles and albums by the group on Specialty, Vee Jay, and Savoy are touchstones for every group that came after them. They started getting mainstream recognition when the joined the cast of the Gospel at Colonus, a 1988 Broadway show based in the Oedipus myth. That led to performances at jazz and folk festivals and high-profile collaborations with artists like Allen Toussaint, Ben Harper, Paul Simon, and Peter Gabriel.
On Take the High Road the Blind Boys of Alabama collaborate with a group of country music superstars including Hank Williams, Jr., Willie Nelson, the Oak Ridge Boys, and Jamey Johnson, who co-produced this countrified version of jubilee singing. The big names may bring in people who don’t ordinarily buy gospel music, but the center stage belongs to lead singer Jimmy Carter, who still brings fire to every track as he approaches his 80th year....full text
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