To write the “Boys” off as a mundane gospel group would be a big mistake.
The group, most of which are blind, boast an impressive six Grammys, a Lifetime Achievement Award, three presidential invitations to the White House and collaborations with the likes of Willie Nelson, Tom Petty and Prince.
But perhaps what’s most impressive about the Blind Boys of Alabama is their genuine humbleness and sincere gratitude.
The Blind Boys have lived through it all. They’ve sung through the Jim Crow Era to the Civil Rights Movement and up to today’s Obama Era.
“When we first got started back in the 40s, it was a difficult time,” Blind Boy member Ricky McKinnie said. “There were certain hotels you couldn’t stay in, you couldn’t go to certain places to eat.”
While touring the deep south during the Jim Crow Era, the Blind Boys would be forced to stay in friends’ houses and get their food from street windows.
But luckily, things have changed since then and McKinnie thanks God for that.
“Now we can pretty much go anywhere we want to go, sleep and play,” he said. “We just thank God for giving us an opportunity to see this come to a pass.”
Performing for President Obama in 2010 marked the end of an era for the Boys.
“To go back to the White House and sing to a black President that was qualified to do the job made it that more special,” McKinnie said.
Despite all the well-deserved attention, the Blind Boys have remained true to their roots.
The music veterans started off as glee club members at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in Talladega, Alabama back in the late 1930s. The group called themselves the The Happy Land Jubilee Singers, but soon opted for a name change.
During a 1944 group battle, the Jubilee Singers were up against the Jackson Harmoneers. A program distributed at the time dubbed it a “Battle of the Blind Boys,” thus alluding to the name, the Blind Boys of Alabama.
Since that fateful battle, things have changed, but not too much.
They made a pact to continue doing what they were doing — singing gospel.
“Gospel is what we are all about. We were brought up in Christian homes and raised in the church,” McKinnie said. “The church has stayed with us and we have stayed with the church.”
The Blind Boys kept up the tradition and included six traditional gospel songs on their latest album I’ll Find A Way, which was released last month.
I’ll Find A Way bridges the gap between generations.
Justin Vernon, better known for his work as Bon Iver, produced it.
Vernon grew up listening to gospel music and majored in religion at the University of Wisconsin. He jumped at the chance to collaborate with his childhood heroes.
“When we met [Vernon], we found him to be a real nice individual,” McKinnie said. “It was cold in Wisconsin, but it was warm in his house.”
The two musical styles collided on their cover of Bob Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand.”
“[The song] has a Justin Vernon spin on it, we just jumped on and made it work.”
Needless to say, the tune is incredibly catchy and intensely soulful.
After over seven decades of making music, the Blind Boys haven’t stopped believing.
“We have always been dreamers,” McKinnie said. “If you can dream the dream, do the work and keep the faith, everything is going to be alright.”
The Blind Boys of Alabama will hit Kingston for the first time on Nov. 20 at the Grand Theatre.
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