Higher Ground

Alabama Air Force: The Blind Boys and their lapels.

Brothers and sisters, let's talk about the Lord -- yes, that capital L dude. Like many of us, perhaps your faith in the higher power(s) is lapsed, questionable, agnostic or even nonexistent. My fellow wanderers in the wilderness, welcome to the flock of those who might believe but haven't found a church or sect that feels like home. And give thanks and rejoice, because the genuine spirit from above is coming to town. Meet the Blind Boys of Alabama, who transform anywhere they perform into the holiest temple of whatever deity you do or don't worship.

"The Bible speaks of going out and working, going out into the vineyard and working. And that's what we're doing: going out and getting the music to the world," explains drummer Ricky McKinnie. "And letting people know that God is still alive and well. And that you can have a good time even though it's church music."

And in recent years, the Blind Boys of Alabama have made church music from such secular elements as songs by Tom Waits, the Rolling Stones, Funkadelic and Prince. And they've done it with some distinguished and seemingly unlikely cohorts, including Richard Thompson (who practices a form of Islam), Chrissie Hynde, Shelby Lynne, Les McCann, Bonnie Raitt, John Hammond and Charlie Musselwhite -- the latter two have also toured with the group -- as well as more likely suspects such as singers Mavis Staples, Aretha Franklin, Aaron Neville and "sacred steel" sensation Robert Randolph.

McKinnie refers to such collaborators as the group's "friends" and is honored to have worked with them. "They are people that have known about the group for years. We just had the opportunity to come together."

The resulting music is truly astounding. On the bottom end, there are soul and funk rhythms and even rock and roll edges so inspiring that even the hardest heart can't help but be uplifted. On top of that are group and lead vocals that sound like a heavenly choir -- one made up of black men who exhort, testify and soothe with their deep-fried Southern spirit. It's God's own soul music, whether the song is Funkadelic's "Me and My Folks" or the reading of the 23rd Psalm it segues into.

Of course, anyone with at least a smidgen of spirit is bound to be impressed with the Blind Boys, whose rich and vibrant gospel harmonies sound divine even to heathen ears. The group has been performing and recording since it was first formed 65 years ago at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind. Originally named the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, they worked the black gospel circuit for more than 40 years before wandering into the secular music wilds.

The Blind Boys' music reached new ears through theatrical work (in the award-winning off-Broadway-to-Broadway 1983 play The Gospel at Colonus) and two soundtrack albums. A decade later they recorded the album Deep River with producer Booker T. Jones for the short-lived but visionary American Explorer imprint Elektra Records, in which they incorporated secular songs into their spiritual style. That album won them their first Grammy award.

With founding members and singers Clarence Fountain, Jimmy Carter and George Scott out front, they shortened the name to simply the Blind Boys and signed with Peter Gabriel's Real World label in the late '90s. The three albums that followed -- Spirit of the Century, Higher Ground and last year's Christmas set Go Tell It on the Mountain -- have offered some of the most effervescent and innovative roots music ever recorded, rich with musical soul as well as a palpable spirit that brims with the sort of vision that goes beyond mere sight. Two of the discs won the Blind Boys more Grammys, and McKinnie credits producer John Chelew's "genius" for leading them into new territory.

"Music is universal," he says. "If you sing a song that carries a message, if you carry the right message, you can bring people in. And it's all about the soul of a person. If you can reach that inner soul of a man, you can make it happen, whether it's through the blues or through gospel or whatever."

McKinnie, who has been in the group 13 years and worked with Fountain on his solo projects in the 1970s, has been blind since 1975, owing to the effects of glaucoma. (The rest of the instrumentalists are sighted.) Yet he also acts as the Blind Boys' road manager and is the creator of their impressive Web site. "The Blind Boys show that it's not about the disability, it's about the ability," he asserts. "My motto is 'I'm not blind, I just can't see.' And that's what makes the difference. As long as what you know about you're doing, that's what it's all about. You might not be able to do it in one sense, you can do it in another."

And conversely, he notes, "If you don't know what you're looking at, it's just like being blind."

No matter what the origin of the Blind Boys' material or who they're playing it with, for the group, it's still all about giving honor to God. "The Blind Boys love the Lord. All of them have church backgrounds. So that makes it happen," McKinnie says. "I think their faith and their belief that they can make it is what made it all possible."

There's also a secular lesson to the group's career and success along with their collaborations with popular music figures, as McKinnie sees it. "What we're doing is showing the masses of people that working together works. It's about working together. And we have learned to adapt to pretty much any situation. Because people are just people no matter what type of music they play. As long as the lyrics are clean lyrics, it's not about the person so much as the music."

And there are good people in all facets of music.

"We're just singing to whoever wants to hear it," McKinnie concludes. "So people have come to know that the Blind Boys reach out to everybody. We're not just a church group. We're a group for the world."

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