At this stage in their impossibly long and remarkable career, it might be unnecessary to begin a review of the new Blind Boys of Alabama record rehashing their biography, or offering another appraisal of their legacy. But after seven decades together as a group, having lived through ever-changing times and many departed bandmates, Almost Home can’t help but feel like their swan song, or like the culmination of their long journey. The two surviving original members, Clarence Fountain and Jimmy Carter, are nearing 90 years old, and the overarching theme, as the title suggests, is their impending mortality. But instead of a sad and funereal affair, Almost Home celebrates their home-going by returning to their roots, with the most front-to-back gospel album they’ve recorded in years.
The original Blind Boys of Alabama came up in the Jim Crow South, having first met at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind. They released their first single in 1948, “I Can See Everybody’s Mother but Mine,” introducing a new style of “hard gospel” music. The group has persevered through as many changes in musical tastes as musical formats, but the new millennium has been their most commercially and critically successful period, racking up numerous awards and accolades, including five Grammys. Their first album in three years, Almost Home comes after a run of collaborative albums with Ben Harper, Taj Mahal, and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, which blended the religious with the secular to attract a different (read: younger) audience. This new album, however, isn’t out to gain new converts; it is a parting gift to the faithful.
Drawing largely from extensive interviews with Fountain and Carter, the 12 songs on Almost Home were penned by multiple songwriters, including Ruthie Foster, Cris Jacobs, Valerie June and Phil Cook. Though written by other hands, the songs selected for this album sound distinctly, and often grievously, autobiographical. The title track, “Stay on the Gospel Side,” written by Marc Cohn and John Leventhal, was based on Fountain’s reminisces about suffering mistreatment as a youth at the school for the blind, before finding salvation through gospel music.
Once one of the world’s greatest gospel shouters, Fountain—now lacking the strength to sing lead—has other longtime band member Ben Moore step in: “Well, my work is done, and I’m finally going home to see my maker / Nothing scares me in this world no more, not the devil or the undertaker,” Moore sings. “I’ll finally see my father’s face / Hold my mother close, and feel her grace.”
Jimmy Carter takes lead vocals on four tracks, and his low and gravelly voice carries a heavy weight, most notably on the the bluesy “Let My Mother Live,” and the heartbreaking title track. On top of pianist Peter Levin’s slow and delicate melody, Carter sings the chorus with as much strength as he can muster: “I come a long, long way from Alabama / Been a long time gone / I’ve been up, down, the whole world around / And I’m almost home.”
Also including covers of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Live Forever,” and Bob Dylan’s redemption song “I Shall Be Released” (with a surprising Neville Brothers-like falsetto flourish by singer Paul Beasley), Almost Home serves as a reminder that gospel music, at its core, is American music, and when performed by masters of the craft like the Blind Boys of Alabama, hard divisions between religious and secular fall away. Almost Home is at once a tribute to that enduring spirit, and a worthy coda to a magnificent American story.