A FEW MINUTES WITH… Rickie McKinnie of the Blind Boys of Alabama

December 6th, 2017, 2:00 pm by Greg

By Don Wilcock

“You tell your kids, if you can live the dream and keep the faith, everything is going to be alright.”

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At age 65, Rickie McKinnie is two decades younger than the Blind Boys of Alabama founder Jimmy Carter. In fact, the gospel group’s origins go back 32 years before he was born.

Nevertheless, 30 years into his career as the group’s drummer and one of five vocalists in the group, he is a sage who has witnessed a seismic shift in the way society universally looks at the relationship between secular and religious music as evidenced by the group’s five Grammy Awards and their work with musicians from almost every imaginable corner.

The Blind Boys perform Saturday night (December 9) at the Cohoes Music Hall.

“God speaks to you no matter who you are in a way that you can understand, and that’s what music is today,” McKinnie says matter-of-factly. When the Blind Boys started in 1939, there was gospel, the Lord’s music, and blues, the devil’s music. Today. There are no barricades between the secular and the profane.

“It feels great to know times don’t change. People do. So, what you realize is that people can appreciate the music. We learned that working together works. That means we’ll work with anybody as long as that music is clean and authentic. We like the music itself, and that’s how we work with different artist collaborations. In the beginning it was the Blind Boys, and then we learned to work with other artists and other producers, and here we are today.”

The Blind Boys have recorded with a long list of secular artists including Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, Susan Tedeschi, Aaron Neville, Ben Harper, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and collaborated with everyone from Mavis Staples and Stevie Wonder to Prince and Dr. John. Almost Home, the Blind Boys’ latest album, contains 12 songs culled from 50 selections that blend the sacred and the secular, the traditional and innovative written by Valerie June, the North Mississippi Allstars, Phil Cook, Ruthie Foster and others. “It was hard (picking from 50 cuts),” says McKinnie, “but it worked out well. It was the songs that really were telling the stories about the Blind Boys, where we came from.

“We’re still singing gospel, (but) they might have a blues feel or mainstream feel. We sing mainstream now. It’s still traditional gospel music, but to sing to different types of people all over the continent, even they don’t know your language, they can feel what you’re doing. The Bible says, ‘If I be lifted up, we draw all men,’ so that what it’s all about. We’ve just been made famous by God to be doing what we’re doing.”

Like the Holmes Brothers and Mavis Staples, the Blind Boys have not only “crossed over,” but they’ve crossed over without compromising their message. They have just been nominated for what could become their sixth Grammy for Best American Roots Performance. The nominated track, “Let My Mother Live,” was co-written by John Leventhal, Marc Cohn and the Blind Boys’ own Jimmy Carter.

Even after so many honors, McKinnie does not take the group’s Grammys for granted. “Every time you’re nominated for a Grammy, it makes you feel good. It lets you know that somebody’s listening to your music and somebody appreciates what you’re doing whether you win or not. So we’re thankful and appreciate every time that somebody calls the name the Blind Boys of Alabama.”

The group has recorded several Christmas albums over the years – including Talkin’ Christmas! (with Taj Mahal) and the Grammy-winning Go Tell It on the Mountain – and the Blind Boys’ Cohoes show is a Christmas concert. “We’re going to sing, ‘Go Tell It on the Mountain,’ ‘Silent Night,’ ‘Merry Christmas to You.’ If you look back over your life, you can remember all these good old songs, these Christmas songs, so we’ll sing some of those Christmas songs.

“And then we’re going to take you back home with some good old Blind Boys down-home music. From the new record we do ‘Almost Home,’ and we do another song that’s called ‘God Knows Everything.'”

McKinnie sees the secular acceptance of gospel, and the religious acceptance of secular music as part of God’s plan. “God presents himself to people, and he talks to everybody in a way they can understand. The Pope goes all over the world, and he can speak all these different languages. So, you have to be able to speak to a person in a way they can understand. That’s the way God is.”

I asked McKinnie how old he was when he figured that out?

“I just did,” he chuckled. “That’s because of divine inspiration. HE gave me that thought just as you said it. He speaks to you in a way you understand.”

WHO: The Blind Boys of Alabama Christmas Show
WHERE: Cohoes Music Hall, Cohoes
WHEN: Saturday (December 9), 8pm
HOW MUCH: $37.50, $42.50 & $51.50
NOTE: GO HERE to enter to win a pair of FREE tickets to the Blind Boys’ Cohoes concert
ALSO: The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington will also present the Blind Boys of Alabama Christmas Show at 7pm on Sunday (December 10), where they’ll be joined by the Preservation Hall Legacy Horns. Tickets are $30, $52 & $67.

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