There are three ways of looking at the astounding fact that the Blind Boys of Alabama are more popular now than at any point in their six-decade history.On the one hand, the Blind Boys have been business savvy over the last 15 years or so. A hard-core gospel group that refuses to waver from its mission, the band has nonetheless found rock songs that they can, with little or no alteration, transform into declarations to the Lord. Thus, they have connected with pop-music audiences with covers of Bob Dylan’s “I Believe in You,” Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross” and Blind Faith’s “Presence of the Lord,” without compromising the core of their artistry – and souls.Additionally, they have worked hard. Though lead singer Clarence Fountain – who founded the band as the Happy Land Jubilee Singers in 1944, at Alabama’s Talladega Institute for the Deaf and Blind – is 76, the Blind Boys tour hard and record prolifically. Since 2000 the band has released five CDs, including “There Will Be a Light,” a collaboration with soul-rocker Ben Harper, and “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” their first Christmas CD, which featured Tom Waits, Aaron Neville, George Clinton and Michael Franti. (The first of those CDs, “Spirit of the Century,” earned the Blind Boys their first Grammy Award; they have since picked up three more.) Onstage, they don’t exactly play it safe by singing only to like-minded believers. They appeared at the first Bonnaroo Festival, alongside such rock acts as Widespread Panic and hip-hoppers Jurassic 5. Nor are they restrictive as to whom they perform with. At last year’s Grammy Awards ceremony, they sang with rapper Kanye West and soul-singer John Legend.”We’ve done the things it takes to make a singer popular,” said Fountain by phone from his home in Baton Rouge, having just returned from dates in Austria. “We went to Broadway [in 1983 for the award-winning musical drama “The Gospel at Colonus,” a launching point for the band’s recent popularity]. We went all the way around the world. We’ve done these recordings with everybody. You name it, we claimed it.”
A second way of explaining the rise in their fortunes is that the Blind Boys are simply better than they ever have been. Listen to Fountain sing now – or better yet, watch him live – and it’s hard to believe that he was capable of conveying the same sense of authority that he did as a younger man. The Blind Boys, which still include fellow founding-member vocalist Jimmy Carter, have also advanced musically with the times. The group’s latest CD, last year’s “Atom Bomb,” features rapping from Gift of Gab, from Blackalicious. They have also collaborated with bluesman Charlie Musselwhite, David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, and Robert Randolph & the Family Band. None of these are token alliances, meant to garner recognition. In all of these associations, the Blind Boys have absorbed musical ideas, especially in the realm of the blues.”I’m wiser,” said Fountain, whose other long-lasting bandmate, singer George Scott, died in 2005 at the age of 75. “Maybe not better, but I know how to get to the point faster. I know how to maneuver. I’m just more smarter. There are shortcuts I know how to take.”While Fountain takes the modest route, others are more impressed. In an interview with The Aspen Times this spring, on the eve of the release of his new CD “Both Sides of the Gun,” Harper was most interested in talking about the Blind Boys, and in praising them to the heavens.”It was a huge deal, a huge musical discovery that became life lessons learned,” said Harper, speaking of the projects – guest appearances on the “Higher Ground” album, the full-album collaboration “There WIll Be a Light,” and the concert DVD, “Live at the Apollo” – he has done with the Blind Boys. “You can’t return from having an experience like that. The Blind Boys are truly the deepest well of American musical heritage you can discover.” The third perspective to take on the Blind Boys’ latter-day success, Fountain would confirm, involves no shortcuts. It is an approach to music and life that involves the same commitment, day after day, whether anyone is paying attention or not. It is, surely, the explanation Fountain puts the most stock in. Popularity, awards, fans, even the wonderfulness of the music, are matters beyond the grasp of the Blind Boys of Alabama. They are in the hands of the Lord.”You just keep on living and the Lord has it mapped out which way you’re going,” said Fountain, a native Alabaman who speaks and sings with a gruff voice. “We’re not that smart. We don’t understand the things in life we’re not supposed to understand. We follow the way the wind blows, and do the best you can. That’s the most important thing you can do.”
Fountain is a Baptist, though his faith includes the sort of acceptance and patience associated more with Buddhism. With Fountain, the fundamentals are the key: Keep believing in God, keep spreading his gospel. All else follows, including the powerful music and the accolades that come with it.”The most important thing is going along, one day to the next, and believe in the salvation of the Lord,” he said. “Without him, you can’t sing. With him, you can do all things.”Still, even Fountain gives himself some bit of credit. A big part of the Blind Boys’ current run of creativity is that their sound has been constantly updated. Much of that is attributable to John Chelew, their regular producer since 2000. But Fountain also brings a desire to look ahead, and keep himself current on artists and styles. His faith hasn’t left him disconnected from the modern, musical universe.”You’ve got to update everything you do,” he said, “because if you just lay down, you get left behind. You have to keep up with what’s going on, keep your ear on the wood of whatever’s going on in the world. I listen to all the things, because I want to be up to par. I don’t want to be behind.”What you’ve done in the past you have to leave that behind and keep going forward.”At the moment, Fountain is looking ahead to a pair of recording projects, one old and one new. He was anticipating a re-release of his early ’80s solo album, “Only Believe,” slated for late June. And the Blind Boys have picked out some dozen songs for their next album.Fountain is looking forward to the re-release. The album originally had only a small-time deal, when the he and the Blind Boys were a relatively small deal.”I think it’s pretty good,” he said. “It’s some of the songs I love, I love to sing. I was in pretty good voice 25 years ago. We’re gonna turn it loose and hope it does very well.”
And if the album doesn’t make an impact, and if the Blind Boys’ run should come to a halt, Fountain isn’t going to worry. It’s out of his hands, and he’s put himself in bigger hands than those of the CD-buying and song-downloading public.”I’m just going to wait on time, and it will come out all right. I haven’t lost any faith in the 60 years I’ve been running on this track.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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