Album Review: The Blind Boys of Alabama – Take The High Road
The sheer joy and enthusiasm that permeates every nook and cranny of The Blind Boys of Alabama’s new album launches full-throttle in its opening seconds, seamlessly combining a breathless, preaching testimony, crisply powerful harmonies and an instrumental backing that could have been pulled from classic Merle Haggard standards.
And it’s every bit as wonderful as that sounds.
In fact, the star-studded affair–even the legendary George Jones couldn’t stay away, attending recording sessions alongside Bill Anderson–produces one of the strongest collisions of genres in recent history, combining deliciously rebellious licks of steel guitar and meandering honky-tonk arrangements with goosebump-inducing harmonies and meaty statements about faith, hope and heaven.
The project grew out of founding member Jimmy Carter’s love for country music, and marks a detour from the classic, old-school gospel the Blind Boys made its name on. The Grammy Award-winning group first came together in 1939 at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind, and is now made up of vocalists Carter, Bishop Billy Bowers and Ben Moore, and musicians Eric “Ricky” McKinnie, Joey Williams, Tracy Pierce and Peter Levin.
The idea behind Take The High Road hit full-gear when the group met and performed with fellow Alabama native Jamey Johnson at the 2010 Alabama Music Hall of Fame inductions. Johnson signed on as co-producer (sharing duties with long-time Blind Boys producer Chris Goldsmith and musicians Chad Cromwell and Kevin Grantt) and brought his trademark catch-all recording style to the album, stripping down the wall between recording studio and listening room.
There was no pre-production or rehearsals for the album, and it shows: There are “Amens!,” arrangement discussions, intro countdowns and guitar riff samples, and the result is a participatory effect that places listeners in a church revival at Tootsie’s bar with a congregation of legendary musicians. (Perhaps for good reason – Johnson actually took the Blind Boys on a tour of Nashville hotspots, including the famous Broadway joint where the group ended up onstage.)
Here, that congregation is made up of Nashville heavy-hitters The Oak Ridge Boys, Lee Ann Womack, Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, and Hank Williams, Jr., who join Johnson as musical guests. They all bring something unique and fresh from their country backgrounds, but still possess the prerequisite levels of soul and reverence needed to match the Blind Boys.
These collaborations work staggeringly well in their own ways: Lead-off track and single “Take the High Road” demands attention, combining the harmonies of the Blind Boys with the Oak Ridge Boys. That energy is matched on both “I Was a Burden,” where lone female Womack denounces former addictions to “dope, whiskey and wine” to the strains of a triumphant steel solo, and Gill’s “Can You Give Me a Drink?” It’s the loosest song of the bunch, grooving its way through a first-person account of Jesus’ search for a good Samaritan, to a beat that would have had Elvis’ hips twitching.
Conversely, two of the most attention-grabbing collaborative tracks are also its quietest moments. Johnson delivers an intimate rendition of “Have Thine Own Way, Lord” that builds to a powerful ending. The similarly hushed and acoustic take on Willie Nelson’s own song “Family Bible” layers the heft of the Blind Boys’ harmonies over Nelson’s famous phrasing.
And while these tracks will receive the most attention, the Blind Boys are just as at ease on its solo efforts. While most follow a pattern of acoustic gospel harmonies that transition into funky steel, piano and harmonica-laced country arrangements, the standout “I Know a Place” is buoyed simply by its own convictions and the quiet arrangement that spotlights its central proclamation “I am certain, for the Lord told me so.”
The one misstep on the album comes on its last track, when the energy of the first twelve songs dips after Hank Williams, Jr. turns his father’s “I Saw the Light” into an exuberant romp. The steel guitar races up and down, seemingly as excited about the spiritual epiphany as the vocalists themselves. His Bocephus twang wraps perfectly around the down and dirty exclamations of “I saw the light,” making it one of the brightest spots on the album. It would be a fitting ending, but closer “The Last Mile of the Way” robs it of that title and quietly drags the album to an end.
Regardless, the cumulative effect up to those final moments on Take The High Road is at once majestic and humbling. Just as the rough-hewn edges of Johnson and company’s production choices contrast well with the lofty subject matter, the country and gospel genres make for a natural pairing. After all, Saturday night and Sunday morning are only a few hours apart.
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