California, both metaphorically and physically, is about as far as you can travel from Alabama within the 48 contiguous United States. Yet for the last few weeks, at least, the Blind Boys Of Alabama have called the Golden State home. "I've been out here too long," Clarence Fountain laughingly says, the group's leader, in a telephone interview shortly after shooting the Blind Boys' first-ever music video. "We hope it turns out all right," he adds in a deep, mellifluous voice. "But as far as I'm concerned, I'm done with it."
It's been a busy year for the Blind Boys. They've been on the road almost constantly, performing at the New Orleans Jazz Fest and the Newport Folk Festival and everywhere in between. The hectic pace is de rigueur for Fountain, who says that he likes touring. "I like to keep moving. You know, in 1944, we hit the road and never looked back. We've been goin' on ever since."
And what a journey it's been: Fountain, a native of Tyler, Alabama ("50 miles from Montgomery, out in the Cotton Belt"), came to the Talladega Institute For the Blind in 1939, when he was just 10 years old. He joined the all-male chorus there then decided to form his own four-part harmony group. "For a while, we called ourselves the Happy Land Singers, and we toured all around the country," Fountain remembers. "Then, a promoter put us on a show with another blind group, the Jackson Harmonies from Mississippi. He billed it as a contest between the Blind Boys Of Alabama and the Blind Boys Of Mississippi. The name worked good, so we stuck with it."
While the group enjoyed great success on the gospel circuit, Fountain eventually left for a solo career. He recorded a handful of albums for the Jewel label then rejoined the Blind Boys in 1980. "It's better to sing with the group," he says today. "It gives me more oomph, a real foundation to lean on."
On the Blind Boys' latest, Higher Ground, Fountain leads fellow singers Jimmy Carter and George Scott through a dozen rousing tunes. Their intricate harmonies imprint time-honored gospel standards like "I Shall Not Walk Alone" and "Precious Lord" as well as nontraditional numbers like Funkadelic's "Me and My Folks" and Prince's "The Cross" with the Blind Boys' signature sound.
"The Cross" gets a particularly poignant reading from the group. "I never thought about singing a Prince song," Fountain admits, "but once we got through the logistics of the harmonies, we just wanted to jump up and sing it. As long as it's not someone talking about 'my baby' or 'I love her' or 'please, do it to me!,' then it's all right."
A successful attempt at reinventing the Blind Boys for a new audience, Higher Ground also features covers of songs from Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin, and reggae icon Jimmy Cliff. And the Boys are backed by a new generation of roots musicians, most notably pedal-steel player Robert Randolph and his Family Band, along with organist Ben Harper. Randolph's guitar work constantly drives the group forward, swirling and soaring to great effect, particularly on the album's title track, a Stevie Wonder cover.
"Here's the deal," Fountain continues. "If we think the song is right, we sit down and take it apart and listen to the words and see how they correspond to how we want to sing it. Music is music, and a song is good if you can feel the emotion to really sing it. We're doing a good thing, thinking about God, knowing how God works, and knowing what to do and how to do it. I'm glad we do what we do. Like tonight, we're playing a concert here [Sacramento], and in the morning, we'll jump on a flight to Chicago and sing a show with the Spirit Of the Century Band [John Hammond, David Lindley, Charlie Musselwhite, Danny Thompson, and Michael Jerome, the band who backed the Blind Boys on last year's Grammy-winning Spirit Of the Century album]. It's just a circle that goes 'round and 'round."
"We love to get up and celebrate and do what we need to do. Thursday, we'll be doin' it in Memphis. We're gonna do it, don't worry about that!" Fountain exclaims. The deep voice suddenly becomes quiet, and for a moment, Fountain is lost in thought. "One of my favorite composers, Rev. Herbert Brewster, was from Memphis," he says contemplatively. "When you sing one of his tunes, it comes out just like it was supposed to. He was quite a songwriter. To think about the songs that he wrote It seems like all the good gospel singers are dead and gone." And then he's off and running again: "I like Memphis because it's just a big ol' country town. Good food -- I like the good Memphis barbecue. When we go, we just hole up and get a belly full of food and then get to work. Anytime you're going to where the good food is, you can count me in."