For the four octogenarians in the Blind Boys of Alabama, settling down isn't part of their plan. After 70-plus years of existence, the last dozen have seen the non-sighted gospel quartet at its most inventive, experimenting with blues, country and hip-hop and collaborating with Lou Reed, Willie Nelson, Tom Waits, George Clinton, Ben Harper and many others. Between 2001 and 2009, the Blind Boys won five Grammy Awards (four of them consecutively) for traditional soul gospel album, and were honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009. With new album "I'll Find a Way," due Oct. 1 on Sony Masterworks and produced by yet another unlikely collaborator-Justin Vernon of Bon Iver-the wheel of invention keeps turning.
"Even back in the early days whenever we were performing onstage, we would come together with different groups and the spirit would fill the building," says Eric "Ricky" McKinnie, a longtime singer/percussionist with the quartet. "It's like a bouquet of flowers. When you put different colors and fragrances together, it works out well."
Vernon, a multiple Grammy winner in his own right for 2011's Bon Iver, Bon Iver, was a fan of the Blind Boys, a fact that came up in a conversation last fall between his manager Kyle Frenette and Sue Schrader, a member of the Blind Boys' management team. At the time, the Blind Boys didn't have a recording contract but had been contemplating a new album that would pair the group with a variety of contemporary producers. In December the group's manager, Charles Driebe, arranged for it to fly out to Eau Claire, Wis., to meet with Vernon in his home studio.
"If you listen to Justin's music, you can't necessarily tell that he's a fan of gospel and roots, but we found that he has a lot of knowledge about gospel music in general and the Blind Boys' music in particular," Driebe says. "There was more of a natural connection between them than we realized in the beginning."
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Vernon, a former religious studies major at the University of Wisconsin, worked on just a few songs with the Blind Boys before both parties got excited at the prospect of doing a whole album together. Following their muse, the Blind Boys funded a week of recording sessions out of their own pocket, during which the bulk of I'll Find a Way was recorded.
The collaboration went deeper than just Vernon and the quartet, which includes McKinnie, Jimmy Carter, Ben Moore and Joey Williams. The indie folk singer and multi-instrumentalist put together a full band with his close friend and collaborator Phil Cook and brought in a handful of his contemporaries to contribute vocals to the project. I'll Find a Way features duets with Shera Worden of My Brightest Diamond, Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards and Casey Dienel of White Hinterland, in addition to an appearance by Vernon on the Bob Dylan cover "Every Grain of Sand."
"At one point we had a conversation and Justin said he wanted to take the Blind Boys into the future," Driebe says. "I said, 'Yeah, that sounds about right.'"
I'll Find a Way builds on the minimalist yet emotionally resonant template set by the Blind Boys' first Grammy-winning album, 2001's Spirit of the Century, finding new vitality in the alternately modern and deferential sensibilities of Vernon and company. The album invokes traditional gospel spirituals with renditions of "I Shall Not Be Moved" and "Take Me to the Water," as well as the more recent strain of cathartic and soulful folk music for which Bon Iver is known. Songs like "I Am Not Waiting Anymore," "There Will Never Be Any Peace (Until God Is Seated at the Conference Table)" and "Every Grain of Sand" swell and swoon with saxophone and a mournful horn section. And Worden's star turn on the album's title track has the ring of an AC crossover hit, a la Norah Jones.
Sony Masterworks came onboard to release the album even before it was finished, signing the Blind Boys to a multiple-album deal based on early demos. The label, historically known for its catalog of classical music, was looking to expand its repertoire of contemporary American heritage music after winning a best blues album Grammy for the Tedeschi Trucks Band's debut, Revelator, in 2012.
"It gives us the opportunity to build bridges of listeners," Sony Masterworks senior VP Chuck Mitchell says of the union between Vernon and the Blind Boys. "In a non-contrived way, this is an opportunity for diverse audiences to come together and listen to some great music."
The Blind Boys released an online documentary short on the making of I'll Find a Way in early August, and Sony Masterworks will produce two music videos for "There Will Never Be Any Peace" and the title track. Despite the advanced age of its members, the group still tours regularly and will perform during both weekends of the Austin City Limits Music Festival in October with Vernon and Cook as special guests.
"The Blind Boys are a symbol that disability doesn't have to be a handicap because everybody has their limitations," McKinnie says. "We want to tell people that it's OK to be a dreamer, but if you dream the dream, do the work and keep the faith. Nothing is impossible."