When the Blind Boys of Alabama went out on a limb last year, embracing a blusier sound and covering songs by Tom Waits, Ben Harper, and the Rolling Stones, fans of blues, soul, and rock responded, turning “Spirit of the Century” — the gospel mainstays’ debut for Peter Gabriel’s Real World label — into the 60-year-old act’s biggest hit in recent memory and one of 2001’s most unexpected and thrilling treasures.
With their follow-up, “Higher Ground” (issued Sept. 3), the Blind Boys continue with that formula, this time covering songs by such artists as Jimmy Cliff (“Many Rivers to Cross”), Curtis Mayfield (“People Get Ready”), Stevie Wonder (the title track), and Prince (“The Cross”). But while they seem to be continuing in a mainstream direction — and while they are playing to more secular listeners than ever before, thanks to “Spirit” — the Blind Boys themselves have no qualms about who they are or what they’re doing.
It’s nice that the audiences are getting bigger and more records are being sold, but, make no mistake, notes the group’s leader, Clarence Fountain, the Blind Boys are a gospel group singing gospel music, a gospel group using secular songs to do God’s work.
When talking about the new album — on which the three veteran Blind Boys (Fountain, Jimmy Carter, and George Scott) are backed by Harper and rising Sacred Steel star Robert Randolph and his group, the Family Band, among others — Fountain and Carter note that each song covered on both Spirit and Higher Ground is one with a hopeful, Biblical message.
“In ‘People Get Ready,’ the words say ‘People get ready, there’s a train a comin’/You don’t need no baggage, ya just step on board.’ It says, ‘Faith is the key,’ ” Carter says, accentuating “faith” with the fervor of a preacher mid-sermon. “All you need is faith. You don’t need no baggage, no ticket, no nothing. That is a song for the believer. ‘Ya just step on board.'”
Fountain says the title track of the new album pretty much sums up the Blind Boys’ personal and musical missions: “I figured Stevie didn’t write it for this reason, but, in my mind, I perceived ‘higher ground’ to mean, ‘God is up there, he’s not down here. So I wanna get up there on higher ground. I don’t want to go to Heaven yet, but I want to be where Jesus is, so I’m saying ‘higher ground,’ because he’s up and we’re down.”
While treading more mainstream territory, the Blind Boys have needed to change a lyric or two to ensure that each cover is faithful to that mission. Fountain says, “There’s a line in [“Higher Ground”] that says, ‘Lovers, keep on lovin’.’ We took it out and replaced it with, ‘Prayers, keep on prayin’.’ It didn’t belong in our material.”
As they did on “Spirit,” the act delivers a message of faith over the music of a popular song. While “Spirit” featured the group singing “Amazing Grace” to the Animals’ arrangement of “Housing of the Rising Sun,” on Higher Ground, the Blind Boys sing the 23rd Psalm over a slide-guitar-led version of Funkadelic’s “You and Your Folks.”
In addition to earning the band a bigger audience, “Spirit” was showered with critical acclaim and won the group the 2001 Grammy Award for best traditional soul gospel album, all of which confirms to Fountain that “if you hang in there — in God’s own time — he’ll bless you. Not in your time, cause you ain’t got no time, but in God’s time, he gives you your just reward. And we’re receiving it now.”
Noting that he and his bandmates have an even better album in them, Fountain says this revived interest in his group by not only fans but also by the musicians participating is proof of one more thing: “It makes me feel like we’re doing a job that needs to be done.”
Excerpted from the Oct. 12, 2002, issue of Billboard. The full original text of the article is available in the Billboard.com members section.
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