Blind Boys of Alabama: Take the High Road

Few surprises, but there's no moment of this album that doesn't sound good.

Blind Boys of Alabama

Take the High Road

Label: Saguaro Road
US Release Date: 2011-05-03
UK Release Date: 2011-05-09
Label website
Artist website

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.





The 60 Best Albums of 2007

From tech house to Radiohead and Americana to indie and everything in between, the 60 best albums of 2007 included many of the 2000s' best albums.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Solitude Stands in the Window: Thoreau's 'Walden'

Henry David Thoreau's Walden as a 19th century model for 21st century COVID-19 quarantine.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Will COVID-19 Kill Movie Theaters?

Streaming services and large TV screens have really hurt movie theaters and now the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered multiplexes and arthouses. The author of The Perils of Moviegoing in America, however, is optimistic.

Gary D. Rhodes, Ph.D

Fleabag's Hot Priest and Love as Longing

In season two of Fleabag, The Priest's inaccessibility turns him into a sort of god, powerful enough for Fleabag to suddenly find herself spending hours in church with no religious motivation.


Annabelle's Curse's 'Vast Oceans' Meditates on a Groundswell of Human Emotions (premiere)

Inspired by love and life, and of persistent present-day issues, indie folk band Annabelle's Curse expand their sound while keeping the emotive core of their work with Vast Oceans.


Americana's Sarah Peacock Finds Beauty Beneath Surface With "Mojave" (premiere + interview)

Born from personal pain, "Mojave" is evidence of Sarah Peacock's perseverance and resilience. "When we go through some of the dry seasons in our life, when we do the most growing, is often when we're in pain. It's a reminder of how alive you really are", she says.


Power Struggle in Beauty Pageants: On 'Mrs. America' and 'Miss Americana'

Television min-series Mrs. America and Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana make vivid how beauty pageants are more multi-dimensional than many assume, offering a platform to some (attractive) women to pursue higher education, politics, and more.

Hilary Levey Friedman

Pere Ubu 'Comes Alive' on Their New, Live Album

David Thomas guides another version of Pere Ubu through a selection of material from their early years, dusting off the "hits" and throwing new light on some forgotten gems.


Woods Explore Darkness on 'Strange to Explain'

Folk rock's Woods create a superb new album, Strange to Explain, that mines the subconscious in search of answers to life's unsettling realities.


The 1975's 'Notes on a Conditional Form' Is Laudably Thought-Provoking and Thrilling

The 1975 follow A Brief Inquiry... with an even more intriguing, sprawling, and chameleonic song suite. Notes on a Conditional Form shows a level of unquenchable ambition, creativity, and outspoken curiosity that's rarely felt in popular music today.


Dustbowl Revival's "Queen Quarantine (A Home Recording)" Is a Cheeky Reproach of COVID-19 (premiere)

Inspired by John Prine, Dustbowl Revival's latest single, "Queen Quarantine (A Home Recording)", approaches the COVID-19 pandemic with wit and good humor.


The 2020 US Presidential Election Is Going to Be Wild but We've Seen Wild Before

Americans are approaching a historical US presidential election in unprecedented times. Or are they? Chris Barsanti's The Ballot Box: 10 Presidential Elections That Changed American History gives us a brief historical perspective.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.