Ricky McKinnie / Blind Boys photo by Jim Herrington
Black Violin photo by Mark Clennon
Ricky McKinnie of The Blind Boys of Alabama on Multi-Generational Collaboration with Black Violin
The Blind Boys of Alabama have been very busy lately, releasing their new album Echoes of the South in early autumn, collaborating on two new singles with the group Black Violin, and getting started on an Echoes of the South tour as well as planning for their annual holiday shows. Collaboration is something that’s continuing to be important to The Blind Boys, having previously worked with Stevie Wonder, Lou Reed, Prince, Bon Iver, and many more. In particular, they support multi-generational collaboration as a source of greater mutual understanding and strength for communities.
Originally founded in 1944, the Gospel group has always focused on uplifting themes and bringing people together, and these new tracks with Black Violin definitely fit the bill. Both “The Message” and “We Are One” take up the cause of self-respect, upholding dignity, and finding common causes, but the two tracks take very different sonic approaches that give The Blind Boys an opportunity to spotlight the unique differences in their own voices. Allowing those differences to shine makes for an even greater suggestion of unity in diversity. When it came to recording their new album, however, the group looked to their fruitful past to create a stripped down and classic-feeling album produced by Matt Ross-Spang, Ben Tanner, and Charles Driebe. The album also captures final performances from three members, one of whom has retired, and two of whom have since passed away.
I spoke with Ricky McKinnie, who has been with the group since 1989, about the two new collaborative tracks, their latest album Echoes of the South, and their tour plans coming up.
Americana Highways: You all tour and play a lot. Is it rare for you to get any time at home?
Ricky McKinnie: Somewhat. But we used to do a lot more than we do now, so it’s good to be going!
AH: I’m very interested by your two recent collaborations with Black Violin. I feel like they challenge people to really think about things in this world and experience the music in a transformative way. How did you start working with those guys?
RMcK: We heard about them through our management company. Some of the guys were already aware of them.
AH: Was there something about their sound or approach that made it seem like a good fit?
RMcK: Yes, the sound was good and we could relate to some of their words. When we heard the songs that they wanted to do with us, “The Message,” it was just magic. Those words really fit into what the Blind Boys are all about, coming together in peace and brotherhood.
AH: That song is so dramatic, both in the sound and the lyrics. It’s a powerful piece. Was it obvious to you what you might add to the song?
RMcK: It was fairly obvious to us what they wanted us to do. I think we talked to our music director about some of the lyrics. But the song itself speaks for itself. Our whole thing was that it was from the heart, and I think the song was put together real well.
AH: Did you spend some time doing your tracks as Blind Boys, or did you get together with Black Violin to work on them?
RMcK: We did it in the studio as Blind Boys. We heard the track and went from there.
AH: It seems fitting that a song about unity includes multiple vocal lines contributing to the message. It’s like a community voice. Was that something that you were going for?
RMcK: A lot of times when we do records, we separate voices to bring out a different feeling, and that’s what we tried to do. We really brought certain voices forward because some of the lyrics talk about mothers and fathers, and you can tell that they feel different things. I think it turned out really great.
AH: That makes a lot of sense because you want to bring out a broad range of emotions. If you just hit on the same emotions each time, it won’t be as effective.
RMcK: That’s right.
AH: When you heard the final version of the song “The Message,” how did you feel?
RMcK: Because of the way that it had all been brought together in the studio, with each person singing their part from the heart, when I heard it, to me it really had gravity to it. A feel to it. We were really glad to work with Black Violin and we told them, maybe we’ll do a tour someday!
AH: That would be really cool. Unfortunately, we need to hear the song “The Message” right now just as much as we needed to hear it twenty years ago and forty years ago. You’ve seen a lot in the world and in music. Do you think this song is particularly needed right now?
RMcK: Yes, I think so. It tells that we all need each other and that we are important to one another. I think that’s what we need to realize today. This song is a song that will be good throughout eternity because no matter what, unity is what makes things work. When we can respect one another for who we are, that makes a difference.
AH: I agree. I thought it was really special how the song seems to call to everyone to get together rather than telling anyone what to do. It’s not a commanding song, it appeals to our better natures and the human spirit.
RMcK: Yes. It’s a wholesome song, you know?
AH: Did you know that you were going to do a second song with them when you worked on “The Message”?
RMcK: We knew that we were going to do two songs. Are there going to be more? Hope so. But right now, we also have this new record out, Echoes of the South. Hopefully, we will also do a record with Black Violin. The concerts that we have done were exciting, so I’d like to do it all over again.
AH: The song “We Are One” is a radically different song in sound and approach, but when you think about the ideas behind the songs, they aren’t totally different. It’s a beautiful, ethereal, almost orchestral song. It’s a real visionary kind of song. Was it a surprise to you when you listened to the first version of it?
RMcK: It was a total surprise to me and some of the guys when we listened to it, but the feel of it was good. It was different, but it had a good feel to it.
AH: It’s almost an experimental song the way that it’s put together, so it’s neat that you are trying new things. In that song we get very clear vocal lines from different people, spotlighting different voices. What did you think of that approach?
RMcK: I’m singing on there, and we all have different parts. I like the effect when different people can bring out different goals in the song. Some people sing hard, some people sing softer, some people sing in a good, crisp tenor voice. That difference makes people listen.
AH: I know that you’re someone who has a concern for working with young people. I’ve heard about some of the other projects that you’ve been involved with to support mentorship and multi-generational projects. Do you feel like it’s meaningful for you to work alongside younger artists?
RMcK: I feel that we need to let the younger artists know that music can bring all of us together. Some songs never grow old. I think that by the older generation and the younger generation coming together, we can each learn from one another. That’s what makes it important. They learn from us and we learn from them, too. Then we can both see the others as who they are.
AH: I think it’s not that common in this world for different generations to work together on artistic projects. But putting something out like these songs collaborating with Black Violin is a good demonstration of that. It might give people ideas that they ought to do more of it.
RMcK: Right, I think so. We always have our minds open so that if someone would like to work with The Blind Boys or be a part of what we do, they know we are here. That can make a difference.
AH: You mentioned the new album, Echoes of the South. When did you all start putting that one together and what was on your mind?
RMcK: We started working on it about a year and a half ago. We thought back to the first radio show that The Blind Boys did, which was called “Echoes of the South.” So we started looking for some songs that echoed what we did back then. It’s got a lot of great songs on it. We were being old school and thinking back to where we started, like “Send It On Down” and “Jesus You’ve Been Good To Me.” We also had a good old Blind Boys song from back in the day, “Nothing But Love.”
AH: Were some of these songs ones that you had performed live over the years?
RMcK: Yes, they were. A lot of them were ones that we had performed live years ago, so we just brought them back to the forefront. So far, people seem to love it. We go places, and they enjoy themselves.
AH: You actually had so many songs to choose from, was it a hard selection? Did you have any guidelines that you used?
RMcK: There were no real guidelines, so to speak. We had been talking about doing a Blind Boys record for a long time, and these were some of the songs that would come to mind. The producer suggested a few that we hadn’t heard, but once we listened to them, it fit The Blind Boys and it echoed what we want people to hear, like about friendship.
AH: They do all have a great atmosphere. You have a lot of shows coming up throughout the autumn and the winter. What songs will you be performing?
RMcK: Yes, we do have a lot of shows coming up. We’re doing an Echoes of the South tour, and after that, we’re going to do our annual Christmas Tour, and we’re going to sing a lot of our Christmas songs. Those are ones that we did for our Christmas records and also Gospel songs that we’ve done for some of our records. That’ll be Christmas classics but then also some Blind Boys songs.
AH: For Echoes of the South, did you all have to do some rehearsing again to get them ready, since these are older songs or ones you haven’t performed? Or do you feel like you’ve got it?
RMcK: [Laughs] Well, you know, we feel like we’ve got it. But a lot of times, you may feel like you’ve got it, but you need to rehearse. We’re going to have some rehearsal time before we go on tour. We usually do that before any tour for a couple days and go over the songs. Every night, the songs also get better and better, because the more you sing something, the better it gets. But every night, you’re going to hear something special!
Thank you for speaking with us, Ricky McKinnie! Find more details and information on the Blind Boys of Alabama website here: http://www.blindboys.com/
And on the Black Violin website here: http://blackviolin.net/
Enjoy our previous coverage here: REVIEW: Blind Boys of Alabama “Echoes of the South”