Since producer Rick Rubin’s unforgettable series of collaborations with the late Johnny Cash, which began in 1993 when the Def Jam founder approached the country icon with the idea of releasing a series of stripped-down recordings, the pairing of a hip producer with a storied musical icon has been a sought after, an often successful, formula for both player and tinkerer. Jack White deftly revamped songbirds Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson, and who can forget Jeff Tweedy’s compelling compositions centered on gospel legend Mavis Staples’ raspy pipes?
Continuing in that tradition is I’ll Find A Way, the 2013 album by Southern gospel icons The Blind Boys of Alabama. The unique crossover act has roots dating back to the Alabama Institute for the Blind in 1939 and has amassed five Grammy Awards, including a lifetime achievement award, in their nearly 75 years together.
The Boys, whose touring core now consists of seven musicians, including founder Jimmy “Jimster” Carter and two other blind singers, Ricky McKinnie and Ben Moore, approached Bon Iver singer-songwriter Justin Vernon—a self-proclaimed gospel music fanatic—for the project that resulted in a compelling 11-song lineup of re-worked standards such as “Take Me to the Water” and originals with guest vocalists such as Shara Worden, the enigmatic chanteuse who performs under the moniker My Brightest Diamond. Vernon also tapped Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards, Patty Griffin and Sam Amidon for appearances; Vernon himself performs on a few tracks as well. But it’s Worden’s contribution to the title track that is a standout, her smokey warbles pairs perfectly with the Boys’ soulful harmonies. Catch the video for the track here. A short doc about the making of the record is here.
Worden performs tomorrow with The Blind Boys of Alabama at the Old Town School of Folk Music, and promises to deliver that tune along with a few others after her opening solo slot. It’s a rare chance to catch an ace melding of history and innovation, of youth and experience, both onstage and in the audience.
Nov. 9 at the Old Town School of Folk Music, Maurer Concert Hall, 4544 N. Lincoln Ave., oldtownschool.org; $43 to $45