With the release of Almost Home, their first new album in three years, the legendary vocal group Blind Boys of Alabama culminate a legacy that stretches back a full seven decades. It’s a remarkable trajectory, borne in the most challenging of circumstances, but 70 years later, two original members, Charles Fountain and Jimmy Carter, still remain at the helm, upholding southern gospel tradition while consisting pushing at the boundaries and finding continuing relevance with contemporary audiences. With five Grammys under their collective belts (including a Lifetime Achievement Award), entry into the Gospel Hall of Fame and stunning collaborations with dozens of artists of note, The Blind Boys have done more to bring their sacred sounds to the foreground than any other artist or group mining similar terrain. The new album is a testament to that prowess, but it also serves to cap a career exemplified by the stirring sound of their seamless harmonies and profound conviction.
To celebrate this milestone, we offer a list of 20 of The Blind Boys of Alabama’s most momentous musical accomplishments.
20. “People Get Ready”
Although the song was covered repeatedly since originally written by Curtis Mayfield, it’s the reverence and spiritual sentiment imbued in The Blind Boys‘ rendition that turns the song into a fervent prayer for salvation and determination. The stoic harmonies drive the song forward, but with each member of the group soloing throughout, the passion and purpose makes the delivery especially expressive overall.
19. “Stand By Me”
Though not the song of the same name as sung by Ben E. King, “Stand By Me” still comes across with the same urgent plea, although in this case they’re addressing the Lord and not a would-be lover. The song comes across a chant, a rhythmic surge that drives it from beginning to end. No plea for salvation has ever sounded so emphatic.
18. “Many Rivers To Cross”
The Blind Boys completely redefine this Jimmy Cliff classic, turning the anguish inherent in the original into a soulful, subdued statement of fact. In that sense, the song is transformed into one of acceptance and acquiescence, looking forward with calmness and peace of mind. Here again is an outstanding example of how the group can takes a singular standard, transform it and make it their own.
17. “Singing Brings Us Closer”
Another entry from the new album Almost Home, this soulful ballad restates the obvious. Beautifully arranged and sung with their usual resonance and resilience, it’s a song that effectively sums up The Blind Boys of Alabama’s very reason for being—their ability to find comfort and assurance through prayer by lifting their voices to express faith and devotion. Those who have witnessed their songs of solace over part or parcel of the of the past 70 years can only be pleased that they did.
16. “Go Tell It On The Mountain”
Another oft-covered spiritual, “Go Tell It On The Mountain” gets a powerful, pleading treatment packed with the drive and determination with which the song was always intended. The combined wail and wallop of the delivery is as convincing as it is compelling. And no one shouts out a song more emphatically than the Blind Boys of Alabama.
15. “Higher Ground”
Under normal circumstance a pure pop song like this wouldn’t necessarily qualify for the group’s repertoire, however, given the obvious upward gaze this track implies, the melding of urgency and messaging makes it a perfect fit. Likewise, with Robert Randolph and the Family Band handling the instrumental duties, the combination becomes all the more compelling.
14. “I Shall Not Be Moved”
It’s fitting that The Blind Boys of Alabama should cover this stoic song of protest, one which became a veritable civil rights anthem. They may not always put their personal struggles front and center, but regardless, they reside below the surface, given all the obstacles they were forced to overcome. The fact that they triumphed on their own terms clearly indicates that the sentiments expressed in this song continue to resonate through everything they represent.
13. “My God Is Real”
A testament to unwavering faith and fulfilment, this moving ballad is as soulful as they come, richly etched and sung with conviction and clarity. Ben Moore, who sings the remarkable lead vocal on the song, had recently lost his wife of many decades, and yet he sings with a resolute determination that belies any sense of loss or sorrow. It’s as if to say, when you’re at your lowest you can also feel closest to your Maker.
12. “Every Grain Of Sand”
A Bob Dylan cover is always an excellent pick, but this track from Dylan’s gospel period finds its full essence in the hands of The Blind Boys and special guest Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. Vernon’s vocal sounds unusually somber, but elevated by the group’s harmonies, the song is lifted to new heights that even its composer wasn’t able to accomplish. Profoundly moving, it’s now decidedly memorable, as well. A second listen to the original may well be in order.
11. “Take Me To The Water”
New recruit Paul Beasley, a noted gospel singer in his own right, takes a turn in the spotlight and establishes a new home within the group context. His remarkably high pitched soprano establishes his solitary stance, but it’s further illuminated by The Blind Boys’ stirring harmonies. The song is rendered in a distinctly low key delivery, but the power and inner conviction is undeniable. It’s hard not to be moved.