In the seven decades since the Blind Boys of Alabama first began singing together, America has witnessed a World War, the civil rights movement, and the Summer of Love; the moon landing, Vietnam, and the fall of the Berlin Wall; JFK, MLK, and Malcolm X; the invention of the jukebox, the atomic bomb, and the internet. Through it all, the Blind Boys’ music has not only endured, but thrived, helping both to define the sound of the American south and to push it forward through the 20th century and well on into the 21st. Praised by NPR as “pioneers,” the group has transcended barriers of race and genre to become one of the most acclaimed and celebrated groups in modern music. From the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind, where the original members met as children, all the way to The White House – where they’ve performed for three different presidents – the band’s story is, in many ways, America’s story, and that story is at the heart of their emotional new album, ‘Almost Home.’
Recorded over four different sessions helmed by four different GRAMMY-winning producers in four different cities, ‘Almost Home’ recounts the band’s remarkable journey, primarily through original songs written for them by an outstanding collection of artists including Valerie June, the North Mississippi Allstars, Phil Cook, John Leventhal, Marc Cohn, and Ruthie Foster among others. The record blends the sacred and secular, the traditional and innovative, the past and present.
‘Almost Home’ grew out of the recognition that the band’s original lineup is down to just two remaining survivors: long-time group leader Clarence Fountain and current leader Jimmy Carter. Both men were born in Alabama during the Great Depression, and while Carter is still active and regularly touring with the group, Fountain’s health precludes him from traveling much these days, though he does appear on the album.
The album opens with the captivating “Stay On The Gospel Side,” which sets the stage perfectly as it traces Fountain’s roots all the way back to childhood and recounts the band’s insistence on remaining true to their origins. Written by John Leventhal and Marc Cohn (with an additional credit to Fountain, since the title came from his exact words), the track is one of a trio of songs produced by Leventhal (Rosanne Cash, William Bell) and recorded in New York City, and it showcases the stunning range of joy and pain contained in the group’s beautifully weathered voices. On “Pray For Peace,” which is the Blind Boys’ version of a song submitted by the North Mississippi Allstars and recorded in Nashville with producer Vance Powell (Chris Stapleton, Jack White), the group offer up a foot-stomping, electrifying gospel blues for our troubled times. Meanwhile, the Cris Jacobs’-penned “I Kept On Walking,” recorded at FAME Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals with Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin (Faith No More, Buckwheat Zydeco) producing, is a rave-up about persistence and resilience in the face of struggle and doubt, and the folky “Train Fare,” written by Valerie June and recorded in Seattle with long-time Blind Boys producer Chris Goldsmith (Charlie Musselwhite, Ben Harper), looks back on all the good works of the band’s career as their ticket to the afterlife.
Given the age of the surviving original members, it’s not hard to hear the subtext of the album. In lines like “my work is done and I’m finally going home to see my maker,” the band acknowledges that they’re closer to the end than the beginning. But rather than resting on their laurels, they’re adding a new chapter to their legacy, creating some of the finest work of their career as they solidify their place not just in musical history, but in the very fabric of American culture. The original members of the Blind Boys of Alabama may be ‘Almost Home,’ but it’s clear they intend to keep on singing, spreading peace, joy, and love until the very last note.