There is something worse than being physical blind. And that is a person who may have a 20/20 vision but who does not have a vision to serve God. Some 70 odd years ago, there was a group of blind boys from Talladega Institute for the Deaf and Blind in Alabama who refused to just grope in the darkness of self-pity for the rest of their lives. Rather, placing their hands in the Light of the world they began to use their voices to illuminate the world with God's grace. Starting off as a group of kids who were all blind (save for one), they began singing professionally as the Happy Land Jubilee Singers. Though these lads may not have seen the rays of the sun, but they have felt the scorching heat of life's trying furnace. It took the boys ten years after their inception before they began recording their first record. Even then, they were still struggling to get gigs and for years they lived a day-to-day, dollar-to-dollar existence touring the South. Further, to add more embers to their trying furnace was the death of one of their members. Nevertheless, they did not give up. Under a new titular "The Blind Boys of Alabama" they continued to sing for the Lord.
Half a decade later, when many of us were already thinking of retiring, the Blind Boys of Alabama finally received widespread recognition when they starred in an Obie Award-winning Broadway show named "Gospel at Colonus." The musical opened up new avenues for bookings and they began touring theaters and larger churches in the early '90s, embarking on their first European tours as well. The group was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship in 1994. In 2002 they appeared as the guest artist on Peter Gabriel's award winning "Up" album. Though Jimmy Carter, Eric 'Ricky' McKinnie, Joey Williams, Tracy Pierce, Ben Moore, and newest addition Paul Beasley have long outgrown the appellation "boys," they have not outgrown their Gospel-enterprising youthful hearts. Always thinking of the next generation, they have partnered with some of country music's stalwarts such as Jamey Johnson, Willie Nelson, Vince Gill and Hank Williams Jr. of bringing a baker's dozen of songs to a more contemporary audience with their "Take the High Road" album in 2011.
Two years later, with a keening eye now on the alternative rock/roots market, they have Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver) in the production chair. Lining up in the vocal booths are Sam Amidon, Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs, Casey Dienel of White Hinterland, Patty Griffin, and Justin Vernon himself. The songs itself are as idiosyncratic as the guest artists: the album starts off with their take of an old Kitty Wells' Gospel number "God Put a Rainbow in the Cloud." The Blind boys have certainly put their stamp on it by turning this old country chestnut into a spiked up spiritual where the contemporary blast of the electric guitar and good ol' finger snapping doo wop meet. Don't expect any antiseptic treatment when it comes to the Blind Boys' rendition of the Civil War anthem "I Shall Not Be Moved." Here the lads let loose in worship with heaps of Holy Spirit energy. The momentum decelerates when Blind Boys' newest member Paul Beasley showcases his high reaching falsetto on "Take Me to the Water" a testimonial ode kodaking the moment when a person has finally resolved to follow Christ.
Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs makes his cameo on the lilting reggae jazzy "I've Been Searching." While alt-roots Patty Griffin takes the lead on "Jubilee." Living up to its title, the song "Jubilee" jumps with a refreshing zest with Griffin sounding her best in years. The Blind Boys' take of Chi-Lites' "There Will Never Be Any Peace (Until God Is Seated at the Conference Table)," on the other hand, is languid, casual and jazzy. The cackling drums that sounds like clashing utensils while Casey Dienel of White Hinterland takes on lead vocals and Mike Lewis on saxophone. What is amazing about the Blind Boys is that despite their handicap, their age and their life's disappointments, they have never lost the adventurous spirit in their hearts. Never restrained in their utterance of love for Jesus; never reticent to push the envelope of musical styles; and never so near-sighted to only think about themselves but always the next generation --- "I'll Find a Way" captures all of this and more.