Blind Boys of Alabama,
Take the High Road
(Saguaro Road, 2011)

Nowadays, it's not unusual for a veteran artist to bring in guest artists for an album; when singers begin to lose a little of their luster, it's a natural inclination try to polish up the surface a little. I can't help but wonder if that's the Blind Boys' strategy on this album, where they call aboard everyone from Jamie Johnson (who co-produced) to the Oak Ridge Boys, Lee Ann Womack, Vince Gill, Willie Nelson and Hank Williams Jr. to duet with them, each on a single cut.

Actually, the question of whether the guest star idea was a genuine attempt to perform with people they respect or a cynical ploy is irrelevant. What matters is the music, and it is everything you expect from the Blind Boys: joyous, stirring, beautiful, soulful and amazing. In fact, the guest stars pretty much disappear, for the most part sucked into the Blind Boys' style like dust into a vacuum cleaner. Willie Nelson holds his own, of course, but the others, for all their strengths, are simply not strong enough to overcome what the Blind Boys bring to the table. Even Willie benefits from having the Blind Boys help him out with "Family Bible."

The album opens with "Take the High Road," which features a revitalized Oak Ridge Boys, who sound much better now that their big-time commercial success and fame has faded. The song sets the tone for the album; it chugs and charges, pushes against the boundaries and offers up harmonies that will have you shaking your head in disbelief. The two vocal groups forge together so well that, at times, it's hard to figure out which one is singing lead. When Jamie Johnson takes the lead on "Have Thine Own Way, Lord," he sounds like a Blind Boy singing baritone, fitting right in with the group. For a country music outlaw, he's right at home with gospel music.

Still, as well as the guest fit in (with the possible exception of Lee Ann Womack), the best songs on the album are the seven the Boys perform without outside help. On these, they demonstrate that it doesn't matter if they've been around for nearly 70 years, they're still as fresh and brilliant as the five Grammies they've won.

Buy this one. In fact, give copies out as Christmas presents.

music review by
Michael Scott Cain

27 August 2011

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