From The Heart
Continuing the Legacy of The Blind Boys of Alabama

By Lee Valentine Smith

With the release of their latest album Almost Home, the Blind Boys of Alabama continue the to keep the spirit of their historic band alive. From their origins in 1939 to today's line-up, the group's gospel and soul music is perhaps even more vital and inspired than ever before.

The five-time Grammy-winning group has endured decades of changes and today's version consists of Ricky McKinnie Jimmy Carter, Ben Moore, Paul Beasley and musical director Joey Williams, backed by keyboards, bass and drums.

This month the Atlanta-born McKinnie will host a special evening of music to benefit his Traditions Cultural Arts Program, a non-profit organization that supports grassroots music. McKinney spoke with INsite from his recording studio in Kirkwood.

You have two very different shows coming up. First, let's talk about the show this month at Eddie's Attic.

I have a non-profit and it's called Traditions Cultural Arts. The goal of Traditions is to promote, preserve and educate people about music and the arts, and support grassroots music, blues and jazz. So it's gonna be a great show. A lot of my friends are coming over to work with us to make it an exciting evening. It is gonna be phenomenal; we'll have different people all singing different styles of music.

Great, will you be performing as well?

Yes I'll be performing a couple of songs, but we'll also have a number of guest artists there, such as Randall Bramblett. He wrote the song from the Blind Boys record Almost Home, the title cut. Also Kevn Kinney will be there. He's in the rock group Drivin'N'Cryin.' And the singer-songwriter Michael Tolcher will be there. And we'll have a great gospel singer named Harold Holloway and David Robert King, too. It's gonna be a good night of music. And we'll have a few special surprise guests. Most of all, The Blind Boys of Alabama are gonna be there. We'll be there to meet everybody and sign autographs and just have a good time. All of us, Jimmy, Joey, Ben, Paul and me.

It sounds like a party.

Oh yeah, a good time, good music, good singing and it's all for a good cause. It starts at five and it's gonna be live.

The other show is coming up next month at The Fred, with Marc Cohn and Robert Cray.

That'll be fun, too. We've been working with Marc on and off for a while. We had an opportunity to do a lot of shows with him last year. When you come see Marc Cohn and the Blind Boys, you're gonna hear some good singin.' We do some Blind Boys music and then we get together and sing along with Marc Cohn.

How did you start working with Marc?

Our manager, Charles Driebe brought us all together. He was on Almost Home and wrote some of the songs on there.

What's Marc like to work with? He seems like a really intense artist.

I like him a lot. He's kinda quiet but then he knows his art. He's a real laid-back guy and we just have a good time.

Robert Cray is also on the bill. He's always solid.

Yeah we worked with Robert a long time ago. It's good to be back with him. I love his voice. So with him along, he's doing the blues, we're doing the gospel and Marc is doing his songwriter thing, I think it's a great combination. And somewhere in the mix we'll have Shameka Copeland.

How do you balance the set? Some people want to hear gospel and some want to hear the more worldy stuff. How do you balance it?

We just do songs that have a message. So when you come to concert, you'll hear some messages and there'll be messages at both shows.

Almost Home has been out a for a couple of years now. You've seen a lot of changes in the industry as you've continued to record.

Exactly. I've been playing for about 46 years now. The first time I did a record in a professional studio, I was 20 years old. I'm 66 now, so I've seen a lot of things change. I think the biggest change I've seen is you don't have to be in the same room anymore. It used to be a one-shot thing and it gave you an authentic sound. It was what it was, you couldn't go back and clean it up. That's what made it a good performance.

You've had a unique journey into the band.

Yeah, my road to Blind Boys started a long time ago. I've been a member for about 30 years now and I managed the group until about 2000. Now I'm the business manager. In 2013 when Billy Bowers passed away, I had to move up front and away from the drums.

You're definitely keeping the legacy vital and alive.

I always tell people, what's from your heart, reaches the hearts of others. We sing from the soul and we show that disability doesn't have to be a handicap. It all works out.

Ricky McKinney hosts an evening at Eddie's Attic on Sunday, May 19 at 5 p.m., and The Blind Boys Of Alabama sing with Marc Cohn and Robert Cray at Frederick Brown, Jr. Amphitheater on Saturday, June 22 at 7:30 p.m. For more information, please visit amphitheater.org.

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