Big Al Anderson & The Blind Boys of Alabama: Eclectic… And Ecumenical

Big Al Anderson & The Blind Boys of Alabama: Eclectic... And Ecumenical


“Big Al” Anderson spent 22 years almost half his life as the blazing guitarist and vocalist for The New Rhythm and Blues Quartet. Known for its eclectic material, superb musicianship, and willingness to play anything the audience requested NRBQ never fit a mold, and developed a near-fanatical following. Big Al wrote many of the band’s most memorable tunes, including “Ridin’ in My Car,” and “A Girl Like That,” while also penning hits for Alabama, LeAnne Rimes, The Mavericks, Trisha Yearwood, Carlene Carter, and Tim McGraw’s #1 hit, “The Cowboy In Me.”

Based in Nashville, Big Al spends most of his time writing for others, but now has two albums at the ready. This month After Hours will debut . A tour de force comprised of country, swing, R&B, ballads and rock, it’s what he does best: everything. His next release Pawn Shop Guitars, which he describes as “rock, R&B and garage stuff,” is in production.


Formed some six and a half decades ago, The Blind Boys of Alabama are the iron men of the music industry. Predating Elvis, Little Richard and Al Green, the first version of the group formed at the Talladega Alabama Institute for the Blind in 1939.

Joey Williams, Ricky McKinnie, Bobby Butler, Tracy Pierce and Billie Bowers, along with founding members Clarence Fountain and Jimmy Carter comprise the current lineup. Always seeking to expand the audience for traditional soul-gospel singing and incorporate contemporary songs into their repertoire, they have performed with scores of legendary musicians, including John Hammond, Aaron Neville, Mavis Staples, Chrissie Hynde, Ben Harper, Charlie Musselwhite, Tom Waits and Peter Gabriel.

Their musical journey has brought them a Grammy award for Best Traditional Gospel Album every year since 2002, when Spirit of the Century won. Higher Ground took the honor in 2003, and Go Tell It On The Mountain in 2004. After joining forces with Ben Harper last year, The Blind Boys of Alabama won for There Will Be A Light. Atom Bomb was released in March of 2005 on Real World Records.

The Blind Boys will tour in Canada and the US in 2006. They recently made their second appearance on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show and joined Aretha Franklin, Elvis Costello and Solomon Burke in last fall’s Tribute to Sam Cooke at The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The Blind Boys of Alabama have spread the spirit and energy of pure soul gospel music for over 60 years, yet, even in their ’70s, they are still at the top of the gospel charts and have earned impressive “three-peat” honors by winning consecutive Grammy awards for the past three years. E


Elmore: What are you listening to right now?

Anderson: The Beach Boys’ Hawthorne, CA, the stereo version, and “The Lord’s Prayer,” and Ruby Johnson on Stax, which has the best Steve Cropper on guitar.

Jimmy Carter: I’m a country music fan and listen quite a bit. I’m a fan all night. I like traditional country. I like Merle Haggard, George Jones, Alan Jackson and those kinds of folks.

Ricky McKinnie: I like 70s music; I listen to a lot of soul music….I listen to a lot of BB King, Johnny Taylor, Bobby Womack, Clarence Carter and people like that…

What was the first record you ever bought?

Anderson: “Walk the Line.” Mom bought me the 45 but forgot to get the little thing for the middle. Johnny was all over the place. I must have been eight or nine years old. To this day, he’s one of the greatest artists ever. I played five cuts on the last Highwaymen record. He made no compromises, and it’s still one of my favorites.

J.C.: Wow…first one was way back by a group called A.P. Carter and The Carter Family, way back in the 30s…we didn’t have a Victrola , but we did have a highpowered radio, which we picked up pretty good and it was “The Cannonball” I heard…

Who would you like to have worked with that you haven’t?

Anderson: I’d like to write with Del McCoury, Lieber and Stoller, and Carole King.

J.C.: I would like for Stevie Wonder to make a recording with us; he said he would too.

Ricky McK.: BB King and The Rolling Stones.

What was the first instrument you played?

Anderson: I played piano at three, but I don’t really remember it. The first instrument I played was a guitar with a cowboy on it. It was cheap and the strings were about an inch from the neck, very hard to play.

J.C.: In school, I played the slide trombone one time. I never pursued that. It wasn’t me and I knew that wasn’t it, but what I’m doing now is my North Star.

What brought you to the music you do now?

Anderson: My brother-in-law played guitar, and I fell in love with it. My mother used to let me listen to WWVA in West Virginia at night.

J.C.: We have a producer by the name of John Chelew out of Los Angeles. He would bring me different ideas and bring me different things, like Tom Waits and Aaron Neville and Mavis Staple. But we always stuck to our roots and don’t sing anything that is not gospel as we knew it.

Who would you like in your heaven group or band?

Anderson: I love the rock & roll band I have (Glenn Worf, bass; Chad Cromwell, drums; Russ Pahl, dobro, steel guitar; Reese Wynans, keyboards), but Levon Helm, Duck Dunn, Jamie Jamerson, Garth Hudson, Ray Charles on piano, Earl Palmer on drums. Or Stevie Ray Vaughan’s band.

J.C.: How many would I have to have? I would take the Blind Boys, The Mighty Clouds of Joy, Jackson Southern, one guy from that, and maybe one of the groups from Mississippi called Canton Spirituals.

What is your favorite album of all time?

Anderson: Ray Charles Live in Concert (ABC), Ray Charles In Person (originally on Atlantic, reissued on Rhino) and James Brown Live at the Apollo, Vol. 2

J.C.: We have four Grammy winning CD’s and the first Grammy was off of a CD called Spirit of the Century, and that might be my favorite one.

Where do you buy your music?

Anderson: It’s been a long time since I bought music. I hardly ever acquire new stuff. I’m making music, not listening to it.

J.C.: I buy country and get what I want. I’m picky and I’m looking for the old traditional stuff. You know when I go, I have to get people to go with me and can hardly get them to take time out. You know you have to do a lot of reading in record stores, but I got some friends that will take time to go with me. I love Irish music so I’m going to Ireland and going to find some Irish stuff. I love that music also.

What made you realize you wanted to be in music?

Anderson: The first time I heard it. Mom used to work at a radio station WTHT in Hartford, and she’d bring records home.

J.C.: We went to the (Talladega Institute in Alabama) school and after we all met up there and sung together, we just thought about doing it. I was involved in a Christian environment all the time so it wasn’t hard to make that decision.

What musician influenced you the most?

Anderson: Ray Charles. I learned how to play guitar from him, from his pedal notes. James Burton on Hello Mary Lou, from Ricky Nelson; Chet Atkins—I listened, and I couldn’t understand what he was doing, but I learned. Duane Eddy. I wrote with him, an instrumental.

J.C.: A group called The Golden Gate Quartet. They were from the South and they migrated to New York. They had a program that came out of Birmingham, AL everyday at 4 o’clock. And we said if they could do it, so could we, and we started out on June 10, 1944.

What’s your desert island CD?

Anderson: For country, The Everly Brothers, any of them; the B sides were as good as the A sides. For R&B, Ray Charles on Atlantic.

J.C.: Country. Any one by George Jones or Johnny Cash.

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