Editors' pick

Blind Boys of Alabama

Gospel
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Editorial Review

THE BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA
Album review: "Take the High Road"

Longtime gospel group the Blind Boys of Alabama sing with some of Nashville’s biggest stars on their new album, “Take the High Road.” The whole thing could have been a gimmick, but producer Jamey Johnson, a rising country star himself, emphasizes a funky country-soul groove by Nashville’s session musicians and a vigorous give-and-take between the hosts and guests.

Johnson himself takes the lead vocal on the hymn “Have Thine Own Way, Lord,” his baritone purring with restraint and leaving lots of room for his harmonizers. Willie Nelson wrote “Family Bible” in 1957, and this is one of the best versions, with Nelson half-singing, half-speaking as the Blind Boys hum sweetly behind him. Hank Williams Jr. belts out his daddy’s song “I Saw the Light” over a country-rock stomp as the Blind Boys put the joy in the line “Now I’m so happy.” Vince Gill, the Oak Ridge Boys and Lee Ann Womack also step up as guest vocalists.

But seven of the 13 songs are sung without guests, including four by Jimmy Carter, who joined the Blind Boys in 1945, seven years after the group was founded. Carter isn’t as remarkable a singer as the group’s longtime leader, Clarence Fountain, who is semi-retired, but Carter is a spirited shouter who yanks these songs back to era of gospel quartets in the 1940s and early ’50s. Carter sounds especially inspired when he’s prodded by Mickey Raphael’s harmonica on “Jesus Built a Bridge to Heaven” and by Eddie Long’s pedal steel guitar on “The Last Mile of the Way.”

— Geoffrey Himes, May 13, 2011