During the course of their seven-decade career, the Blind Boys of Alabama have logged several noteworthy achievements: induction into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, five Grammy Awards and performances before three U.S. presidents.
However, one longtime dream still eluded the group. That is, until the May 3 release of "Take the High Road" (Saguaro Road Records), the act's first country-gospel album.
"I'm a country music buff and always wanted to do a country project," original Blind Boy Jimmy Carter says. That desire began taking shape when the act performed "Down by the Riverside" with country renegade singer/songwriter Jamey Johnson at the 2010 Alabama Music Hall of Fame dinner.
"Jamey is from the old school, and so am I," Carter says. "We hit it off immediately. Then he said, 'You need to make a record, and I need to be on it.' "
Video: Blind Boys of Alabama's "I Saw the Light"
Johnson, who partners with the six-man group on "Have Thine Own Way," co-produced "Take the High Road" with Chris Goldsmith. "It was a nice coincidence," says Goldsmith, who has produced the Blind Boys since 2001. "We'd been talking about wanting to do a country record for years and had been waiting for the right time."
Nashville musicians Kevin Grantt (Brad Paisley) and Chad Cromwell (Neil Young) also collaborated with Johnson and Goldsmith to craft the album's spirited blend of the Blind Boys' signature gospel style with classic country on various standards and original songs. To further acquaint Carter with country music's heritage, Johnson took the singer on a tour of such Nashville musical landmarks as Tootsie's Orchid Lounge and the Station Inn.
"It helped open me up," Carter says. "Since I'd never done a country record before, I was wondering how I was going to sound."
"As far back as I can remember, I can place the Blind Boys of Alabama in my musical memory bank," says Oak Ridge Boy Duane Allen, whose group guests on the album's title track. "I love their music, and I love their souls."
Serviced initially to triple A and Americana stations, "Take the High Road" now has a lead single in "I Saw the Light" featuring Hank Jr. The track has also been serviced digitally to gospel radio.
To promote both the single and album, the Blind Boys are staging concerts at Nashville's Belcourt Theater (May 4), Tipitina's in New Orleans (May 5) and New York's City Winery (May 10) with special guests including Johnson and the Oak Ridge Boys. From there the Blind Boys head to Wilmington, Del., to perform at the Non-COMMvention (May 19), which will be simulcast on noncommercial WXPN Philadelphia, which is the conference host, and NPR.com.
"We are connecting with those classic country fans that love roots music and songs," Saguaro Road senior VP of retail Mike Jason says. "We are micro-marketing around every Blind Boys tour date, focusing on local and regional TV, print, online and radio." Aiding the promotional push: the Blind Boys' cameo in Universal Pictures' animated/live action film "Hop" and daily inspirational messages, aka "BB Wisdom," on the group's Twitter page.
Established in 1939 at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in Talladega -- and still averaging more than 150 concerts annually -- the Blind Boys aren't ready to kick back just yet. The group is already planning a fall trek with Nickel Creek's Sara Watkins as the opening act. "I love to get onstage and get that spark from the crowd," says Carter, who joined the group in 1944. "When you love what you do, it keeps you motivated."