For more than six decades, The Blind Boys of Alabama have been one of the leading lights in the area of gospel music. That hasn’t stopped the group from dabbling in other genres from time to time, often collaborating with mainstream rock stars. On its latest record, “Take the High Road,” which was released this week, the Blind Boys were joined by some of the biggest names in country music and the results are astonishing. Founding member Jimmy Carter wasn’t surprised at the album’s positive reception. “We had some of the best musicians in Nashville and I think it came out good,” he said from a tour stop in Wellington, New Zealand. “With the musicians and with the producers we had, they knew what they were doing, so we trusted them completely. I think everything worked out very well.
“We have Vince Gill on there, and Hank Williams Jr., The Oak Ridge Boys, Jamey Johnson, Lee Ann Womack.
“And Willie Nelson, too. Can’t forget Willie.”
Though Carter has been singing strictly gospel music since the Blind Boys formed at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind, he has always been a big fan of country music. “I always have been and I still listen to it all the time,” he said. “My favorite country singer of all time is Jim Reeves. Now my favorite country singers that are living today are Merle Haggard and George Jones. Those are my two favorites.” In fact, Jones attended one of the sessions, but couldn’t take part in the album for health reasons.
“I did (ask him), but at the time we made the record, he was suffering with an allergy problem,” Carter said. “He wanted to, but he couldn’t do it at that particular time.”
One particularly moving number on “Take the High Road” is the Blind Boys’ take on Hank Williams’ classic country gospel song, “I Saw the Light.” Carter also was an admirer of Williams, so it was a natural pairing to do the song with Hank Williams Jr.
“He came in and fit right in with it,” Carter said of that recording session. “I think he did it in one take.”
The group will perform at StageOne at the Fairfield Theatre Company Saturday night, May 7, and Carter promised that “when we come to Connecticut, we’ll be singing some material from that album.”
For Carter, these collaborations are part of their mission to bring gospel music to the attention of people who may not be exposed to it. In the past, the Blind Boys have recorded and performed with the likes of Peter Gabriel, Tom Petty and Prince. The group also is featured in the hit children’s movie “Hop,” which is in theaters now.
“That was a great experience to be on the same show as Peter Gabriel and Tom Petty and those guys,” Carter said. “They love gospel music and they love the Blind Boys and we were honored to be chosen to go on tour with them.
“You want to involve as many people as you can. We want to get more young people involved in our music, that’s why we collaborate with people like Ben Harper and people like that. These people relate to young people, that’s why we don’t mind collaborating with anybody.” Carter only has one rule when it comes to doing a project with another recording artist: “There has to be the gospel message to it,” he said. “We don’t accept material unless we can put it in the gospel context.”
Though the Blind Boys have been releasing albums since 1948, it wasn’t until 2002 that the group won its first Grammy Award as “Spirit of the Century” won in the best traditional soul gospel album category. The Blind Boys won the same award for the following three years and then again in 2009, the same year it was rewarded with the Lifetime Achievement Award.