Updated Listen to Lee Ann Womack take the early lead on “I Was a Burden,” wavering from each pitch like a fast, heavy car struggling through a curve—painful, unpredictable, the least-likely superstar voice in recent years. Then hear the Blind Boys of Alabama back her up—always certain, but always shifting within that certainty, building twice to “when you’re standing in the light,” the first time with a conventional gospel push, second time with a hushed variation emphasizing awe.
Chet Flippo’s Take the High Road liner notes indicate that Blind Boys lead singer Jimmy Carter wanted to make a country gospel album for some time, and the new alliance with country’s Jamey Johnson, who co-produced here, made that viable. To my ears the underlying sound doesn’t shift radically. The Blind Boys go back to the beginning of World War II, more than far enough to remember and to embody the primordial tree from which the roots of roots music snaked away. But the gambit lets in plenty of high-powered country artists who checked their egos with Jesus at the door.
And so the Oak Ridge Boys blend their harmonies and trade testimonies with the Blind Boys on the title track, which cleverly folds faith into altruism, advice against “casting a stone” bolstered with the reminder that “we never walk alone.” Willie Nelson brings his slow-burning fire to “Family Bible”—more than any other American superstar, Willie simply is when he opens his mouth, a living Tao infused into American Southern values. Hank Williams, Jr. roughs up his father’s “I Saw the Light,” reminding us, again, that his father respected and drew from many traditions associated with many colors.
The Blind Boys may not make another country gospel album, but they seemingly effortlessly manage another many-splendored thing.
Updated July 28, 12:58 p.m.
As a commenter says, Clarence Fountain is on the album. The text has been changed to remove statements to the contrary.