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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

The Blind Boys’ vision paved the way for an eight-decade run

The legendary gospel group the Blind Boys of Alabama will perform a concert Sunday afternoon at the Myrtle Woldson Performing Arts Center at Gonzaga University.  (JIm Herrington)
By Ed Condran For The Spokesman-Review

Ricky McKinnie can’t see, but he has perspective.

“I lost my sight, but I never lost my vision,” McKinnie said while calling from his Atlanta home. “It’s about having the right attitude. My motto is ‘I’m not blind, I just can’t see.’ ”

The wise vocalist is perceptive and the silver lining for McKinnie is his lack of sight made him eligible to be part of the legendary Blind Boys of Alabama.

“It’s a labor of love being in this group,” McKinnie said. “There’s nothing more I enjoy than being a part of this (collective). I love the music, the camaraderie and the history.”

Regarding the latter, the venerable gospel group formed before America entered WWII and cut its teeth in a segregated South. None of the original members of the band, which formed at the Talladega Institute for the Deaf and Blind in 1939, is alive. The last remaining original member, Clarence Fountain, died in 2018 at age 88. McKinnie, 70, who has played on and off with the band since the early 1970s before becoming a full-time member in 1989, shared a stage and the studio with Fountain.

“I enjoyed being in the group with Clarence and everyone else,” McKinnie said. “We have always been a tight-knit group. We’re like a family.”

The Blind Boys of Alabama, who will perform Sunday at the Myrtle Woldson Performing Arts Center, have also always been an accomplished and well-respected act for much of its long run. It took a half-century for the Blind Boys to break through to the mainstream thanks to the Obie-winning Broadway musical, “The Gospel at Colonus.”

Since then, the Blind Boys have won five Grammys, been inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and have been invited to perform at the White House during the Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.

The list of icons to have worked with the Blind Boys is staggering. Willie Nelson, Lou Reed, Tom Waits, Chrissie Hynde, Richard Thompson, Ben Harper and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon have each joined the Blind Boys in the studio.

“It’s been a wonderful experience working with all of those amazing musicians and receiving the recognition, but what’s most significant is being able to do what we love, which is all about music,” McKinnie said. “There’s just no greater joy than playing music and connecting with people, particularly during this time of the year.”

McKinnie and his mates, Jimmy Carter, Ben Moore, Paul Beasley, and led by music director and lead guitarist Joey Williams, are in the middle of their Christmas tour.

“We love performing in December since it’s all about the birth of Jesus and good will toward men,” McKinnie said. “If you’re feeling down, we’re going to lift you up. Music brings everyone closer. We’ve seen that time and again after all of the years we’ve been together.”

Expect a healthy dose of Christmas standards from their holiday albums, 2003’s “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and 2014’s “Talking Christmas.”

“We love those kind of songs,” McKinnie said. “We love singing ‘Silent Night.’ We’ll sing that song and ‘Go Tell It on the Mountain’ and we’ll also sing a few Blind Boy songs.”

The Blind Boys, who are working on a new album, won’t let anything get in the way of recording and touring.

“We are so passionate about what we do that nothing stops us,” McKinnie said. “I hope what we do inspires people because the way I see it, the Blind Boys are a symbol that a disability doesn’t have to be a handicap.”