BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA -
Touring throughout the South during the Jim Crow era of the 1940s and 1950s--when blacks were denied the use of whites-only water fountains, bathrooms, and restaurants--the Blind Boys persevered and even flourished thanks to their unique sound, which blended the close harmonies of early jubilee gospel with the more fervent improvisations of hard gospel. During the 1960s, they sang at benefits for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and provided a soundtrack to the Civil Rights movement, which adopted both the Christian message and the dignity of old gospel songs. During the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, gospel groups that had originated in the church began recording secular music, yet the Blind Boys of Alabama stuck to their calling. "We sing gospel music," says Carter. "That's what we do. We're not going to ever deviate from that."
Few would have expected them to still be going strong--stronger than ever, even--so many years after they first joined voices, but they've proved as productive and as musically ambitious in the twenty-first century as they did in the twentieth. In 2001, they released Spirit of the Century on Peter Gabriel's RealWorld label, mixing traditional church tunes with songs by Tom Waits and the Rolling Stones, and winning their first Grammy Award. The next year they backed Gabriel on his album Up and joined him on a world tour, although a bigger break may have come when David Simon chose their cover of Waits' "Way Down in the Hole" as the theme song for the first season of The Wire. The HBO series remains critically regarded as the greatest television show ever aired. Subsequent Grammy-winning albums have found them working with Robert Randolph & the Family Band (2002's Higher Ground), a plethora of special guests including Waits and Mavis Staples (2003's Go Tell It On The Mountain), Ben Harper (2004's There Will Be a Light), and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (2007's Down in New Orleans).
Nearly seventy-five years after they hit their first notes together, the Blind Boys of Alabama are exceptional not only in their longevity, but also in the breadth of their catalog and their relevance to contemporary roots music. Since 2000, they've won five Grammys and four Gospel Music Awards, and have delivered their spiritual message to countless listeners. "We appreciate the accolades and we thank God for them," says Jimmy Carter, a founding member and the Blind Boys' leader for five years now. "But we're not interesting in money or anything other than singing gospel. We had no idea when we started that we would make it this far. The secret to our longevity is, we love what we do. And when you love what you do, that keeps you motivated. That keeps you alive."
ALLEN TOUSSAINT -
New Orleans musicians laid the cornerstone for a large swath of American music, and Allen Toussaint is among the city's most gifted players. As a composer, arranger, producer, pianist and singer, Allen has created an enduring body of work that includes local hits by Irma Thomas and Lee Dorsey; songs covered by Glen Campbell, the Rolling Stones and Robert Plant & Alison Krauss; national hits by Ernie K-Doe and LaBelle; and collaborations with Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello, all in addition to his own recording career. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, and was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Obama in July, 2013.
Songbook presents Allen Toussaint as many of his fans have longed to hear him, in an intimate solo setting, performing many of his best-loved songs. His piano playing is a marvel, with its orchestral conception and effortless New Orleans syncopation. But what comes across most strongly is the warmth of Allen's performance. The gentle Creole lilt in his voice brings a resonance and a smile to his songs, rivaling the versions he produced for others. Recorded live at Joe's Pub in New York, the deluxe edition of Songbook includes a DVD with backstage and studio interviews.
RUTHIE FOSTER -
Those who have followed Ruthie Foster's eclectic musical history know that she can burn down any stage with her combustible blend of soul, blues, rock, folk and gospel. And when Grammy Award-winning producer John Chelew suggested she record an album in New Orleans -- with support handpicked from the Crescent City's overflowing pool of talent -- it was an opportunity for Ruthie to infuse fresh spices into her already rich sonic gumbo. The result is Let It Burn, a recording that smolders, sizzles and ignites with an intensity born from her vibrant voice and indelible presence.
Ruthie's astonishing voice has taken her on an amazing ride. She came from humble church choir beginnings in rural Texas, followed by a tour of duty with the U.S. Navy Band, and ended up in New York City with a major-label development deal that went sour. After she moved back to Texas to care for her ailing mother, Foster took a break from singing professionally for a couple of years. When she resumed her music career in Austin, she became a regular nominee at the Austin Music Awards, winning Best Folk Artist in 2004-05 and Best Female Vocalist in 2007-08. Broadening her sound by blending blues and soul aspects into her folk roots, Ruthie added a Grammy nomination to her list of achievements (Best Contemporary Blues Album for her last studio release, 2009's The Truth According to Ruthie Foster). And, in a nod to her astounding range, she then won seemingly contradictory Blues Music Association awards for both Best Traditional and Best Contemporary Female Blues Artist in back-to-back years.
In addition to leading her own band and touring it around the world, Foster has also collaborated on stage and recordings with a diverse list of artists including Warren Haynes, Big Head Todd, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Bibb and Paul Thorn. She's a regular favorite at an equally diverse list of festivals such as the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the Monterey Blues Festival, Merlefest and the Kate Wolf Festival.
On Let It Burn, Ruthie Foster takes the listener on her most personal journey yet, sounding like she is pouring her heart out late at night, and her deeply soulful vocals create a spiritual soundscape to support her testimony. This is the album her fans have been waiting for -- and that the rest of the world will listen to in wonder.
PAUL THORN -
An interesting thing happened on Paul Thorn's road to recording a follow-up to his most successful release, 2010's Pimps and Preachers. After writing many discs of semi-autobiographical tunes that have drawn comparisons to John Hiatt and John Prine, the critically acclaimed singer-songwriter - hailed as the "Mark Twain of Americana" - decided to take a detour and do an album of covers. "I wanted to take a break from myself," Thorn reveals, "do something different, and just have fun."
The collection, entitled What The Hell Is Goin' On? (due May 8, on Perpetual Obscurity/Thirty Tigers) finds Thorn putting his own gritty rock stamp on some of his favorite songs. There are some names familiar to Americana fans (Buddy Miller, Ray Wylie Hubbard), some lesser-known (Foy Vance, Wild Bill Emerson) and some surprises. The Buckingham/Nicks tune "Don't Let Me Down Again" originated on that duo's debut, not during the Fleetwood Mac era, while the Free song that Thorn chose to cover is an obscure one, "Walk In My Shadow."
Thorn selected tunes that meant something important to him. "I would hear them in the tour van or I'd be at a festival and see someone perform them live," Thorn says, "and I'd say `That's a great song, I wish I had written it!'" One thing the songwriters have in common according to Thorn is that they are true artists. "They don't just write songs in an effort to become popular or follow trends," he explains. "At the risk of sounding corny, they write with their hearts. None of these songs are cookie-cutter tunes like you hear on the radio today. They all have real depth, which is very appealing to me."
This set of songs covers subjects that are familiar territory to Thorn, from the spiritual pull of Miller's "Shelter Me Lord" to the spirited fun in Big Al Anderson's "Jukin'". Thorn, so skilled with his own character studies, plays storyteller with such lurid tales as Hubbard's "Snake Farm" and Emerson's "Bull Mountain Bridge." Emerson (who has written for George Jones and Tammy Wynette) is someone, according to Thorn, who "can tell a story in a song like nobody else."
Thorn has been pleasing crowds for years with his muscular brand of roots music - bluesy, rocking and thoroughly Southern, yet also speaking universal truths. The Tupelo, MS native worked in a furniture factory, jumped out of airplanes, and was professional boxer before sharing his experiences to the world as a singer-songwriter. His last album, Pimps & Preachers, which topped the Americana charts for 3 weeks and broke into the Billboard Top 100, perfectly exemplified the vivid scope of his songwriting but also his family background. While his father is a Church of God Pentecostal minster, his uncle (his father's brother) spent time as a pimp - and Thorn was influenced by both of these men. Mining these `saint and sinner' scenarios, Thorn crafted a disc that All Music Guide lauded as "a great rock & roll album," while the Nation labeled it "an incredible find."
When Thorn and his band hit the road, he'll be performing both his captivating originals and these favored covers, because, as he states, "there are so many great writers out there whose songs need to be heard." Thorn also might slip in a new song or two as he already has started writing more songs of his own for the next album.
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