The Blind Boys of Alabama formed at a school for the blind in the segregated South of 1939. Decade after decade, they've churned out good 'n' greasy Southern gospel, served straight up or paired with the likes of Tom Waits, Ben Harper and even Prince.
Their latest release, "Take the High Road," re-works a solid gold collection of country standards. It's the first time this supergroup -- including its founding member, Jimmy Carter -- has released a full-out country recording, and represents a few boundary crossings: the first track features a reach across the holler from Talladega to Nashville to another group of Boys, this one being of the Oak Ridge persuasion. The common threads that intertwine rhythm and blues, gospel and country have been long acknowledged by anyone worth his or her pedal steel. (Rockabilly fever, anyone?) And "Take the High Road" is full of spirituals that you may recognize if you've got a Baptist hymnal lying around.
Venerated country artists Vince Gill, Jamey Johnson and Willie Nelson lend vocals on selected tracks. The Hank Williams, Jr. number, "I Saw the Light" is a boot-stompin' roof raiser, while prayerful songs like "Why Don't You Live So God Can Use You" and "The Last Mile of the Way" put me in mind of the grave-digging scene in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?": Deep voices in rich harmony trembling in a call-and-response tradition that will make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. And if my church choir had sung "Have Thine Own Way, Lord" like the Blind Boys do, from the gut and full of feeling, I'd probably still be going to Sunday school.
The Blind Boys of Alabama perform at the Old Rock House on November 8, a show welcomed by 88.1 KDHX.
Photos by Nate Burrell. See more at his Flickr site.