Of the 75,000 albums released in 2010, roughly umpteen million were gospel tributes. Patty Griffin, Lizz Wright, Mavis Staples, and the duo of Gary Lucas and Dean Bowman all cut NPR-friendly albums that notably included old hymns and spirituals. Their gospel covers tended towards well-performed curios, though occasionally the musicians managed to do something genuinely new with their source material. (Not surprisingly, none of these albums equaled the thrilling 2009 Tompkins Square gospel compilation Fire in My Bones, cherry-picked from 60 years of obscure recordings.)
The Blind Boys of Alabama have plenty to do with this gospel glut. Last decade, the group, which formed in 1939 (!), released a string of high-profile albums full of old gospel chestnuts and covers of young hipsters like Tom Waits and Prince. They hired famous guest stars and big shot producers, won a string of Grammys, and added musical credibility to TV shows The Wire and Lost. Even if you don’t listen to much gospel, you’d probably recognize their craggy, impassioned vocal harmonies.
Take the High Road is their country gospel album, and it checks most of the boxes we’ve come to expect from the Boys’ late-career resurgence. The famous guest stars include the Oak Ridge Boys, Willie Nelson, and Hank Williams, Jr. rocking his pappy’s “I Saw the Light”. The big shot producers include broad-minded traditionalist Jamey Johnson; he also drawls “Have Thine Own Way, Lord” and contributes the original tune “Lead Me Home”, which closed his debut album. The Blind Boys’ band gets help from hard-working country session players like Cowboy Eddie Long on pedal steel and Moose Brown on keyboards. They’re top-notch like you’d hope Nashville’s finest would be — personable, modestly virtuosic, and instinctively able to stay out of the way.
That’s good, because the vocals here are pretty great. When you get chills from Vince Gill (!!) swinging the heck out of the Bible’s woman-at-the-well story, you know you’re listening to a fine vocal album. Lee Ann Womack sings a tough countrypolitan version of “I Was a Burden”, denouncing her past burden-ness and demanding repentance like she’s running Jesus’ 12-step program.
At center stage, the Boys themselves sound as great as ever. Founding member Jimmy Carter and his mates have perfected a blend of passion, good humor, gentleness, shouting, rhythmic acuity, and mile-wide vibrato that seems to deliver songs as naturally as plain speech or breathing. Somehow all the vast enormity of the Christian walk resides in their voices.
Aside from the guests and the concept, there are no gimmicks on Take the High Road. The instrumental arrangements wouldn’t sound out of place on country classics radio. The Boys don’t attempt any secular-gospel reclamation projects like their previous covers of Prince’s “The Cross” and Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky”.
Nope; just 13 gospel oldies or oldie soundalikes, sung with passion and produced with charming looseness. (The studio patter and bass intro to “Jesus, Hold My Hand” sound like holdovers from Johnson’s shaggy The Guitar Song album.) If there’s a downside to this straightforward approach, it’s that there’s little here that’s surprising — apart from some incongruous drum bashing on “I Saw the Light”. But there’s no moment of this album that doesn’t sound good.