When you're a group that's performed together for more than seven decades, it might be a daunting task to keep crafting music that feels fresh. No doubt that hill is even harder to climb when you're working within a tradition like gospel, with its well-loved, and well-worn, harmonic and lyrical conventions. Yet the singers who make up Blind Boys of Alabama have always risen to the challenge with utter grace — and the group's forthcoming album, Almost Home, places a capstone on that history.
Almost Home, out Aug. 18, finds Blind Boys of Alabama performing songs written for the group by the likes of Valerie June, Megafaun's Phil Cook, John Leventhal and Marc Cohn. The record's hyper-collaborative spirit is fitting, since part of what's kept the Blind Boys' sound vital is their openness to inspiration from every corner of Americana's big tent. In the latter chapters of the group's career it has worked with Justin Vernon, Mavis Staples, Willie Nelson, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and many more, stretching its repertoire while remaining centered in a commitment to faith and close harmony.
Today, you can hear a four-song sampler from Almost Home, representing the album's all-star slate of songwriters and producers:
- "Let My Mother Live" (John Leventhal/Marc Cohn/Jimmy Carter), produced by John Leventhal
- "Singing Brings Us Closer" (Phil Cook), produced by Vance Powell and Charles Driebe
- "Train Fare" (Valerie June), produced by Chris Goldsmith
- "I Kept On Walking" (Cris Jacobs), produced by Steve Berlin
What unites these collaborators is a desire to give the Blind Boys the chance to share their remarkable story, from their early days in late-'30s Alabama through their participation in the civil rights movement and into the present. "[We] just wanted to write some tunes informed by the Blind Boys' extraordinary lives," Leventhal says in a statement, recalling how tales from original members Jimmy Carter and Clarence Fountain inspired the three songs he and Cohn wrote for Almost Home. The overall result is a loosely biographical album that narrates the Blind Boys' history from beginning to present.
Speaking of ends, it's hard not to read the record's title as a nod to an imminent homegoing, of the eternal sort. Carter and Fountain are both nearly 90, and they lost fellow founding member George Scott in 2006. Some of the album's sweetest songs reveal an easy familiarity with the twilight of life: "Singing Brings Us Closer" tells of Scott's continuing spiritual presence onstage, while "Train Fare" is a gorgeous rumination on the body's labor and the soul's legacy. These days, when prominent artists pass on, our internet-facilitated collective mourning can instantly define their narratives for them. It's a comfort and a pleasure, then, to hear Blind Boys of Alabama — with a little help from some friends — tell the story of their lives' work, the way they themselves would have it told.
Almost Home comes out Aug. 18 on BBOA Records and will be available to stream exclusively on Amazon Music.