Jamey Johnson is the young, wild-haired heir to country music's outlaw throne. The Blind Boys of Alabama are the enduring heralds of God's word through gospel music.
Mix them together and something heavenly emerges: country soul. That how members of The Blind Boys of Alabama describe their new album of country spirituals, "Take the High Road," which Johnson co-produced.
"He brought the country, we brought the soul," Blind Boys drummer Ricky McKinnie said. "It all came together and he got soul and we got country."
Johnson and The Blind Boys first met last year, during the group's Alabama Music Hall of Fame induction in Montgomery, when they joined voices for a rendition of "Down by the Riverside."
Turns out both sides had lots in common, despite their difference in age and background. Johnson has always had a love of gospel music and has included bits and pieces on his three albums. And it turns out founding Blind Boys member Jimmy Carter has always had a love for country music.
Their new friendship led to the idea that Johnson should produce a country album for The Blind Boys.
"He and I are from the old school," Carter said. "We like the old stuff."
Johnson brought material to the group and the songs that had the right feel were chosen for the album. It didn't take long for everyone to realize they had a very similar musical vocabulary.
"Alabama is like anywhere else down there _ it's no different from Mississippi and parts of Georgia and Florida _ it's not just rooted in country music," Johnson said. "It's rooted in America's music. America's music is soul. It's jazz. It's country. It's gospel. It's heartfelt. It's sentimental. It's sincere, if nothing else. And where all those things meet is where we started with this album, as far as the sound, as far as a certain experience of music. ... You're going to hear all kinds of stuff."
You'll also hear a number of country music's biggest stars. Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Lee Ann Womack, The Oak Ridge Boys and Hank Williams Jr. guest on the album. Williams joins The Blind Boys on "I Saw the Light," a song by his father, whom Carter remembers listening to on the radio as a child.
The 79-year-old Carter is the only founding member left from a group that first performed together in 1939 at the former Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in Talladega (Johnson's mother lived next to the school at one point). The group hit the road for the first time on June 10, 1944, and its popularity has ebbed and flowed over the decades.
The group started to see a resurgence in the 1980s and `90s and has since won five Grammy Awards, played for two presidents and survived the recasting of its lineup over the years as original members have passed away or grown too frail to travel.
Carter and his cohorts, dressed in matching sharp black western-style suits with gray embroidery, were clearly having a great time this week in Nashville while hosting a listening party at RCA Studio A. It was like that last July when the album was recorded in that historic space.
"This place was full of Nashville legends all week long and they were having fun," Johnson said. "They'd come in and listen to us cut a couple songs. They just wanted to hang out and be a witness to it. And I think it had to be doing the same thing for them that it was doing to us. It was soul-stirring music at its finest."