Sony Masterworks announces the release of the Blind Boys of Alabama‘s new album, I’ll Find a Way, produced by Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver) and available on October 1st, 2013. A unique collaboration between one of popular music’s longest-running acts and one of its fastest-rising stars, it is a powerful collection of gospel and spiritual songs new and old, featuring some of the Blind Boys’ most fervent vocals as well as contributions by a new generation of Blind Boys fans – Sam Amidon, Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs, Casey Dienel of White Hinterland, Patty Griffin, and Justin Vernon himself.
I’ll Find a Way represents a strong new chapter for the Blind Boys of Alabama, whose career stretches back more than seventy years. Formed in the late 1930s at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in Talladega, the group has harmonized throughout the turbulent twentieth century and well into the twenty-first: from Jim Crow through Civil Rights and into the Obama era. They have, however, enjoyed some of their biggest and most rousing successes in the last ten years, during which they’ve won five Grammys, four Gospel Music Awards, and multiple invitations to sing at the White House.
For I’ll Find a Way, their ninth studio album of the twenty-first century, the Blind Boys of Alabama – which includes Jimmy Carter, Eric ‘Ricky’ McKinnie, Joey Williams, Tracy Pierce, Ben Moore, and newest addition Paul Beasley – decamped to the wintry wild of rural Wisconsin to record at Vernon’s April Base studio. Known primarily for his work in the indie and folk realms, the Bon Iver frontman proved a perfect fit to work with the Blind Boys, exhibiting a deep knowledge and appreciation of gospel music.
Vernon and old friend and band mate Phil Cook (Megafaun, The Shouting Matches) corralled a lively backing band for the album and hand-picked a range of songs for the Blind Boys to sing. Some numbers, such as “Take Your Burden to the Lord And Leave It There,” have been sung for nearly a century now, while others, like “I Am Not Waiting Anymore,” were penned only a year or two ago. The result of this unique collaboration is a collection of rousing tunes that address life’s most desperate hours but also savor the triumphs and reassurances of faith.
One of the band’s own stories of trial and triumph involves Clarence Fountain, a founding member of the Blind Boys and the group’s leader for many decades. Serious health problems requiring weekly kidney dialysis have prevented him from touring with the other members of the group. When he couldn’t travel to the Wisconsin sessions, the Blind Boys found a way to include him on the album, recording his robust bass vocals in Birmingham and adding them to the mix.
“That’s an important part, that bass under everything,” explains Carter, the group’s current leader and standout tenor. “He gave those songs a true Blind Boys bottom. We wouldn’t want to do a Blind Boys project without including Clarence. He will always be a Blind Boy even if he’s not out on the road with us.”
A strikingly and confidently diverse album, I’ll Find a Way features an array of guest vocalists representing a whole new generation of artists who find contemporary musical inspiration in America’s gospel past. The daughter of two musicians who played in a Pentecostal church, Shara Worden of Detroit-based My Brightest Diamond lends her soaring voice to the title track (originally written and recorded by the Motown session musician Ted Lucas). Casey Dienel of White Hinterland sings lead on the Blind Boys’ glorious cover of the Chi-Lites’ “There Will Never Be Any Peace (Until God Is Seated at the Conference Table),” whose luxuriant string arrangement has been replaced with a stoical beat, quietly ascending keyboard theme, and stirring saxophone solo courtesy of Minneapolis musician Mike Lewis.
In addition, I’ll Find a Way features cameos by Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs (“I’ve Been Searching,” whose lilting reggae rhythms make it the album’s most adventurous track), Patty Griffin (the barn-burning closer,”Jubilee”), and Sam Amidon (a spiritual version of the band Field Report’s song, “I Am Not Waiting Anymore”). Another highlight is the cover of Bob Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand,” which is recast as a soul-searching duet between Carter and Vernon. “Jimmy and I are coming from such different places,” says Vernon, “and yet we’re singing about the same thing. There are two perspectives in that song, and they’re colliding.”
Whether backing up a guest artist or tearing through an old gospel standard, the Blind Boys show their inimitable range throughout I’ll Find a Way, starting with the very first track, a cover of “God Put a Rainbow in the Cloud.” The song is a country music chestnut, best known as a hit for Kitty Wells, yet Carter, an avowed fan of country music, knows the song through legendary bluegrass picker Ralph Stanley. “I Shall Not Be Moved,” an anthem during the Civil Rights movement and, in Cook’s view, “the trunk of the gospel tree,” stomps nimbly, thanks to the Blind Boys’ spry vocals and the studio band’s crackling country-gospel accompaniment. “Take Your Burden to the Lord And Leave It There,” a tune penned by the African American minister and composer Charles A. Tindley, jogs by on a light shuffle, as though newly relieved of all woes and worries. It recounts not the arduous journey to salvation, but the ecstatic relief of finding it.
The centerpiece of I’ll Find a Way, however, may just be “Take Me to the Water,” featuring newest Blind Boy Paul Beasley. Based on a performance by Nina Simone (one of Vernon’s favorite artists), this version features a steady pace and a rich bed of harmonies, as Beasley pleads and testifies gloriously in his stately falsetto. Just days before this recording, he had made his live debut with the Blind Boys, but initially had some trouble with this tune. After some encouraging words from Carter, Beasley not only nailed a heart-stopping performance, but reduced everyone in the control room to tears. What you can’t hear on the final version is his small audience erupting into shouts and applause on the other side of the glass.
Just as “Take Me to the Water” moved the musicians to tears, so too will this album move the listener. This is the exuberant power of gospel music, which requires its performers to give themselves wholly to the songs. The Blind Boys have been doing that for nearly three-quarters of a century now, and even into their seventies and eighties – despite all obstacles – they don’t plan to stop any time soon.
“It’s not just singing,” explains the 82-year-old Carter. “We’re bringing the message to the people, and that message is the good news of God. We sing from the heart, and what comes from the heart reaches the heart. If you have any feeling in you, you will feel the Blind Boys.”
The Blind Boys of Alabama last performed for La Jolla Music Society in the Jazz Series on October 13, 2012.