With good reason, bands like local hard rockers P.O.D. downplay their religious beliefs. Besides the fact that hard rock fans usually prefer hedonism to religious asceticism, spiritual music in general tends to alienate the mostly secular masses.
But when you're five blind, black men from the Deep South who've been bringing Baptist soul back to gospel music for over 60 years, acceptance isn't as hard. Especially when you're singing a harmony-torched version of "Amazing Grace" to the tune of the whorehouse lament, "House of the Rising Sun."
"We don't try to convict people. You can be yourself and live your life, because that's what it's all about," explains Ricky McKinnie, drummer and business manager for the Blind Boys of Alabama.
"We're there to sing good music and if you can relate to that, that's what it's all about," says the 51-year-old, who lost his vision at age 27 from the effects of glaucoma. "We're not tryin' to preach to you, to make you turn your life around or tell you what you're doin' is wrong."
The Blind Boys united when TV was still a science fictional sketch. They formed in 1937 after meeting at the Talladega Institute for the Deaf and Blind in Alabama. Back then, gospel music wasn't lucrative; it was the music of the poor who were looking to God for answers and, quite often, a little pocket change.
"We're not singin' for the money, but the bible says that a workman is due his time," says McKinnie, who joined the band in 1990. "And it's been proven that if you give it all you got and stick with it the Lord will pay the man. Some people are meant to sing, some people are meant to work hard jobs. You just gotta work with what you're meant to be."
For 60 years and 19 albums, the Blind Boys thought they had a good idea of what their music was supposed to be. They wrote pure gospel music for specialty labels. Though it was a hairline crack of a niche, they did well.
For their 20th album in 2001, however, producer John Chelew approached them with an idea: along with gospel traditionals, why not take a few songs written by popular performers (Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Ben Harper, etc.) and give them "the Blind Boys spirit"?
So they did. Spirit of the Century opened with a brimstone version of Tom Waits' "Jesus Gonna Be Here." They put "Amazing Grace" to the tune of the Animals' "House of the Rising Sun." After the traditional "Good Religion," they busted into Ben Harper's "Give a Man a Home."
For their efforts, they won a Grammy six decades into their career. "When John Chelew first came to us with the idea of doin' that album, we thought it was different. But the Blind Boys are the kind of group that don't mind tryin' different things," McKinnie says, noting that the first melody they worked with was "House of the Rising Sun."
But isn't that song about, uh, er... hookers?
"Yeah," McKinnie calmly admits, hip to the line of questioning. "But "Amazing Grace' is such a powerful song by itself that it overrun a theme of bad and turned it into a whole different thing."
The band dove even deeper into pop music with its next release, Higher Ground. Instead of pull-ing from the rock realm, however, they tilled a musical ground closer to their hearts-classic soul. Songs by Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Prince, Aretha Franklin, Jimmy Cliff and George Clinton all received a gospel overhaul. Robert Randolph, America's leading practitioner of the Baptist guitar style known as "sacred steel," provided fiery licks alongside Ben Harper's bluesy slow-burn.
"Young people are the future. And they have to know that even though they are the future, the past plays a great deal in the future," McKinnie says of using young, alternative musicians for classic soul songs. He also suggests that their openness to new musicians, as well as tours with the likes of Peter Gabriel, Ben Harper and Tom Petty, helped overcome young people's tendency to ignore everyone older than 60.
"When they find that old people who've been around a long time can relate to what's goin' on today and can fit in, it makes a difference," he says. "Young people have a tendency to think that old people can't relate to where they're comin' from. The Blind Boys are a prime example that time doesn't make a difference.
"Age is just a number, and we make it happen," he asserts.