The Blind Boys of Alabama performing at the East Coast Blues & Roots Music Festival in 2009. Photo: Edwina Pickles
Listening to Ricky McKinnie sing, as part of legendary gospel group The Blind Boys of Alabama, could be described as a spiritual experience.
But just listening to him speak, even down a phone line from Los Angeles, is pretty soothing.
“Gospel music is the music of good news,” he intones, in a calm, smooth and youthful voice.
“It's not just an American thing, it's a world thing.”
The Blind Boys of Alabama will tour Australia in March/April this year, bringing their soulful sound to The Tivoli on March 28, before appearing at the Byron Bay Bluesfest on March 30.
“We started coming there a few years ago, and we've always had a love of the country and people, he says.
“We're just so happy that we've got another opportunity to come back to Australia.”
McKinnie is one of the more recent members of the group, joining in 1990 at the invitation of founding member Clarence Fountain. Fountain and fellow founder Jimmy Carter – just kids when they first sang together in 1939 - still tour with the group when their health allows; Bishop Billy Bowers, Ben Moore and Joey Williams are other current members.
“I first heard them when I was four years old, and started working with them when I was about 20,” says McKinnie.
“[To be invited into the band]... it's been like a dream come true.”
“We have had opportunities to work with people from all walks of life – from Ben Harper and Bonnie Raitt and Peter Gabriel, and a lot of different people.”
The collarboration with Ben Harper in 2004 produced There Will Be a Light, a record that went on to win a Grammy for best gospel album, one of six the group picked up in the first decade of this century. Their 2009 gong was a lifetime achievement award.
They've performed around the world, on television, even in the White House, but none of the accolades have swayed the group from its path as a devout proponent of faith, peace, acceptance, and of course, melodies and harmonies.
“We might have lost our sight, but we never lost our direction,” says McKinnie, who says they try to keep their sound as raw as they can, so their voices are always prominent.
“We realise what's from the heart reaches the heart, and we try to sing with our soul.”
McKinnie says their Australian concerts shouldn't be missed.
“If you like clapping your hands, if you like doing a little dance, if you like singing along, if you like having a jolly old good time – you'll have a great time when the Blind Boys are back in town.”
And 2013 will also see them back in the studio.
“We've got a new project we're working on but we're not going to spill the beans,” he says.
“But I tell you this much, it's going to be good, good, good.”
That is good news.
More information through thetivoli.net.au