Even though Grammy nominations are becoming routine for the Blind Boys of Alabama, the energetic gospel group wasn’t counting on the nomination for 2002’s “Higher Ground.” “We thought that our chances were pretty good,” said drummer/ vocalist Ricky McKinnie. “Going with Robert Randolph on the record helped. Young people don’t usually listen to the Blind Boys, but he helped make us visible. We got airplay on stations that wouldn’t play our music otherwise.”
Although Randolph’s “sacred steel” instrumentation is rooted in southern gospel, the inspiration for the pairing came at a concert. “Robert opened for us at the Knitting Factory in Hollywood,” McKinnie said. “When we were starting on the new album, our producer contacted him – that’s how it happened.” The group’s recent recordings have skillfully incorporated artists well-known in secular circles. John Hammond, Charlie Musselwhite, and David Lindley all contributed instrumentally to last year’s Grammy-winning “Spirit of the Century.” For “Higher Ground,” Randolph’s lap steel intertwined with the slide guitar of Ben Harper.
Even though his 12-year tenure makes McKinnie a relatively new member of the group (founded in 1939), he has been close to the group for almost all his life. “I’ve been knowing Clarence (Fountain, group co-founder and lead vocalist) since I was 4,” he said. “My mama was in a gospel group that toured with them, and in the ‘70s I was able to play behind Clarence a bit when he did some solo recordings.” Jimmy Carter and George Scott join Fountain as remaining charter members; Joey Williams and Bobby Butler round out the current lineup.
Consistent across the group is a deep spirituality, retained for decades as offers to apply the group’s talent to secular music were declined. So it’s not difficult to sense something bigger at work – as the group’s exposure in secular circles has grown markedly in recent years, while still staying “on message.” “It’s what The Lord said; that if you serve Him, it will open windows for you,” McKinnie said. “He also promised that the workman is due his time, and that’s how we see it coming together.”
Historically, gospel music has witnessed peaks of broader interest during times of crisis—as during the civil rights era and the Vietnam War. So have the target=newwindow Blind Boys noted increased interest since September 11? Yes, McKinnie said. “I feel like people have taken a more spiritual look at life since then,” he said. “They always thought something like that couldn’t happen to them, and now they see they’re not invincible. They see we each have a soul, and we need each other. That’s what our shows are—it’s a family, coming together, and worshiping together.” And McKinnie emphasized the group’s outreach to young audiences. “If you go to our web site, you’ll read a lot of e-mail messages from young people who write. Our music is bringing people back to the church. We’re just trying to put the word out, to touch the young people with something that is real.”
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