Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released.
If The Blind Boys of Alabama's surviving founders, Clarence Fountain and Jimmy Carter, never get around to writing their memoirs, the autobiographical slant of the legendary gospel group's new album, Almost Home, will be close enough. Fountain (87 years young) and Carter (85) started singing together as schoolboys in 1939 and went pro in 1944; The Blind Boys of Alabama began their recording career four years later. Nearly seven decades down the line, Almost Home looks back on the long, hard, but ultimately gratifying road they've taken.
The album includes bespoke compositions by Americana songsmiths like Ruthie Foster, Cris Jacobs, and Valerie June, as well as a couple of straight-up cover tunes. But the whole thing really revolves around a batch of songs written by others with input from The Blind Boys, making the personal stories of Fountain and Carter a crucial part of the proceedings, and chronicling a journey marked by both jubilation and tribulation. Don't forget we're talking about an African-American group from the South that spent a sizable chunk of its career sans civil rights.
Three tracks penned by Marc Cohn with guitarist/producer John Leventhal open the album, front-loading it with autobiographical detail. "Stay on the Gospel Side," with a co-writing credit for Fountain, looks back at the latter's childhood at the Talladega Institute for the Deaf and Blind, his mistreatment there, and his youthful discovery of the Golden Gate Quartet, which inspired Fountain and his friends to start singing together. It's Ben Moore, not Fountain, who takes the lead vocal, and when he sings, "my work is done and I'm finally going home to see my maker," the declaration is made with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, not weariness.
"Let My Mother Live" includes writing contributions from Carter and offers an account of his own youth. Over some of Leventhal's Pops Staples-style tremolo-laden guitar licks, he sings of losing his father at a tender age and recalls pleading with the Lord to keep his mother around.
Cohn and Leventhal wrote "God Knows Everything" without any of the Blind Boys, so it comes from a nominally less personal perspective. But with its sense of abiding faith and the valedictory feel of its final verse ("When I take my last bow and sing my last chord / I know I'll find peace at last in the arms of the Lord"), it feels as intimately observed as its companions.
"Pray For Peace," a co-write between blues rockers North Mississippi Allstars and The Blind Boys, rides a fat, syncopated groove blending blues, funk, and gospel. It's a clear-eyed assessment of both the progress that's been made since the civil rights movement's heyday and the distance still left to go. When the Boys sing about the changes they've seen in their lifetime and then lament that "our grandmothers would be brokenhearted to see their children's children right back where we started," it's tough to tamp down your own sorrow and anger.
Despite The Blind Boys' tenaciousness, they've incurred their share of losses, especially in the perennial battle no mortal can win. With advancing age, those losses speak louder. And while Phil Cook of indie-folk outfit Megafaun wrote "Singing Brings Us Closer" on his own, he effectively channels the group's feelings about the death of founding member George Scott, whose 2006 passing impacted them as much as the social injustices they encountered along the way. Both are given equal heft here, but in the end it takes more than mortality and oppression to shake these men of faith, as Ben Moore sings, "we march right through that harm, joining voices, joining arms."
On the title track, written by veteran Southern rocker Randall Bramblett with Fountain and Carter, The Blind Boys stare eternity down, seeing not an endless abyss, but a warm welcome on the other side. When they invoke the tune's title, they're seeing the divine culmination of a lifetime's work at the end of the rainbow. When you get down to it, that's the real prize all gospel singers' eyes are fixed upon.
Even when the group ventures into cover tunes they're keeping an eye on that eternal agenda. Their shimmering, soulful take on Bob Dylan's anthem of deliverance "I Shall Be Released" and their transformation of Billy Joe Shaver's "Live Forever" from outlaw country to syncopated R&B are just more kindling for that same spiritual fire — a fire The Blind Boys tend with such authority and diligence, it seems certain to light their journey all the way home.