For more than 60 years now, the Blind Boys of Alabama have been shouting out the Good News of the Christian message. However, ever since their crossover move of 2001, they’ve actually spent more time exhorting the Spirit in theaters and concert halls than in churches.
But longtime Asheville-area trad-gospel fans — the ones who appreciate “context” — will be treated to an increasingly rare Blind Boys experience.
On May 4, the Blind Boys, one of the most beloved trad-gospel groups in America, will be raising the roof at Grace Community Church in Fletcher.
When Clarence Fountain co-founded the Blind Boys in 1939, he probably never guessed that, more than a half-century down the pike, their music would be so popular they’d be filling concert halls, and that most attendees would fall into the “I’m just here for the music” category — that is, folks who don’t necessarily embrace the gospel message.
“No, I never would have predicted that,” says Fountain by phone from a tour stop in Chicago, a day before departing for a two-week tour of Australia.
“That’s okay, though,” he adds.
Fountain also probably never thought the Blind Boys would ever win a Grammy — because, until 2001, they didn’t. But they’ve taken home four since then, nabbing statues in the Best Traditional Gospel Soul Album category for their soul-stirring releases Spirit of the Century (’01), Higher Ground (’02) and Go Tell It on the Mountain (’03) — and sharing another with Ben Harper for their collaborative effort, There Will Be a Light (’04).
“That’s been very exciting,” says Fountain, now 77. “We’ve really enjoyed that, and it’s been a shot in the arm for us, because it helped more people discover our music. It’s kept us going for a few more years.”
Playing with dynamite
Spirit of the Century was the first Blind Boys disc to cause a stir with the rock audience. It’s the biggest album in the group’s history, with sales of about 300,000 worldwide. Subsequent albums like Higher Ground and their latest, Atom Bomb, continued to make inroads with the roots-rock crowd, each closing in on a quarter-million in worldwide sales.
Part of that, of course, is due to crossover appeal: Those albums feature the Blind Boys’ gospelized covers of songs written by the likes of Tom Waits, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Eric Clapton, Ben Harper, Jimmy Cliff and Jagger-Richards. And on Atom Bomb, they deliver a churchy but crackling rendition of Norman Greenbaum’s ’60s-era nugget “Spirit in the Sky,” complete with chugging, distorted guitar by Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo.
A couple of recent albums and tours have also underscored the shared roots of gospel and the blues, as acoustic-blues guitarist John Hammond and lap-steel guru David Lindley have sat in, carving out gritty, percussive riffs behind the vocals. And on some tracks, their tight vocal harmonies are also accented by the huffing blues-harp of Charlie Musselwhite.
But — and this is key — they have drawn on all these other elements without sacrificing one bit of their trad-gospel soulfulness or authenticity.
The title track to Atom Bomb is a cover of a 50-year-old gospel-pop tune — with cautionary lyrics initially inspired by 1950s-era Cold War jitters, but unfortunately still applicable today: “Everybody’s worried/ About the atom bomb/ But nobody’s worried/ About the day my Lord will come.” The track perfectly showcases the group’s eloquence when it comes to crisp, call-and-response vocal arrangements.
The Blind Boys’ most inspired (but potentially alienating) cover is a hybrid of a different sort: The group takes the lyrics to “Amazing Grace” and sets them to the melody of “House of the Rising Sun” — the old blues tune that became a darkly decadent, hippie-culture anthem when rendered by the Animals in the 1960s. “Rising Sun” is set in a New Orleans brothel, so the Blind Boys’ commingling of the two probably struck many church folk as mixing the sacred with the profane, as it were. The idea was the brainchild of their producer, John Chelew.
“We’ve had to be a little careful with some of those choices, because we don’t want to get in trouble with the gospel audience,” says Fountain.
“‘Amazing Grace’ is like a spiritual national anthem. We really had to think about it before we did it like that. I wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to do, but we did it, and it came out all right, and people jumped on it, and it brought us home a Grammy. It could have backfired on us, though — you never know.”
Since the narrator of “Rising Sun” is in a bad way, emotionally and spiritually, one can hear the Blind Boys’ synthesis of the two songs as a deliverance of sorts — offering this man his chance for redemption. “Yeah, that’s the way I looked at it, too,” says Fountain. “And we thought, the tune is familiar to a lot of people who listen to rock ‘n’ roll — maybe we could connect with them that way and get the message to them.”
Fountain admits his group also had some qualms about recording songs by rock acts like Waits, Blind Faith and the Stones. “But once I heard the songs, I figured, as long as they’re talking about Jesus, they got me.”
But he is unconcerned that the Blind Boys have spent more time singing in theaters than churches the last few years — because it’s another way to deliver their message to those who might otherwise never hear it.
“A lot of people have said to us that, when we were singing, they felt something they’d never felt before, because we’re singing about inspiration that comes from on high. There’s only one place you can feel that kind of inspiration, and that’s from God.”
When the group was founded in ’39 by Fountain and several fellow students at Talladega School for the Blind in rural Alabama, they first dubbed themselves the Happy Land Singers. In the 1940s, they became the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, but shortened their moniker several years ago when they expanded to seven members. The baritone-voiced Fountain and tenor Jimmy Carter remain from the original lineup. A third founder, George Scott, passed away last year.
No day of rest
Fountain still takes satisfaction in the long cultural reach of trad-gospel music. The influence of gospel groups from the ’30s and ’40s — most notably the Blind Boys, the Soul Stirrers and the Fairfield Four — is immeasurable. Their tight, four-part harmonies, with distinctly separate voices, inspired the R&B and doo-wop vocalists of the ’50s — who in turn were a big influence on the rock, soul and pop singers of every generation since.
With Fountain and Carter now in their 70s, part of the strategy behind their recent crossover move was that, by becoming more popular, they could sell more records and play bigger venues. Which meant that, instead of retiring completely, they could keep going without having to tour as much.
Still, “I’ve been thinking lately that it might be time to retire soon,” says Fountain. Or, he confirms, maybe just tour in the South, since he lives in Baton Rouge. “Or maybe just tour the United States,” he ponders.
“But they keep tellin’ us things like, ‘But we’ve got this great offer to play Australia.'”
With a laugh, Fountain adds: “So I tell ’em, ‘Then you go play Australia! I’m tired!'”
[Writer and critic Kevin Ransom previously wrote about the Blind Boys of Alabama in 2002 and 2005.]
The Blind Boys of Alabama play Grace Centre at Grace Community Church (495 Cardinal Road, in Fletcher) at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 4. $30-$40; proceeds benefit Desire Street Ministries (dislocated from New Orleans following Katrina) and Asheville’s One Youth At a Time. Call 891-2006 or see graceinfo.org.