Blind Boys’ Joey Williams on changing harmonies and changing audiences

by Ryan Snyder

Even going on 20 years as guitarist and almost as long as musical director for gospel paragons the Blind Boys of Alabama, Joey Williams will never stop being the baby of the group. There’s still something to be gained, however, from being the perpetual junior to a group of singers — namely founders Jimmy Carter and Clarence Fountain — that have performed for World War II training regiments and Martin Luther King, Jr. alike, released a dozen recordings before he was ever born, and been at the forefront of mainstream revivals of gospel, soul and blues. Williams is the forever student to his elders, and the edification and exploration never cease.

Now in their eighth decade as a touring act, the Blind Boys of Alabama are not simply paragons of gospel music; they are paragons of artistic rebirth. Their most recent album, 2011’s Take the High Road, brought them into the country music fold for the first time and the group’s reverence for collaboration led them to share harmonies with the likes of Jamey Johnson, Willie Nelson and Vince Gill. The Blind Boys are on to their next project, however, but before then, they’re taking a month to revel in their favorite time of the year. When the Blind Boys arrive at SECCA in Winston-Salem on Sunday, Dec. 16, they’re bringing a handful of holiday classics among their arsenal of blues, gospel standards and reworked popular covers.

YES! Weekly recently talked to Williams about his tenure with the Blind Boys.

Y!W: Your 20-year anniversary with the Blind Boys is coming up, but it seemed like a relationship that was meant to be from the beginning.

JW: I was actually playing for another gospel band on the same bill when their tour manager approached me and asked me if I could find them a guitarist. He heard me play that night, but he wouldn’t ask me himself because I was with another band. He asked me instead to find someone who plays like I do. I did a little research on the guys and, long story short, told them I found them someone and that guy was me. They were coming to New York in March of that year, and they asked me to come out for an onstage audition. When I came off they said that I have the job if I wanted it. They actually paid me that night, something like half of what they received. I was impressed right there.

Y!W: Almost 20 years later and you’re still the junior.

JW: When I got here, they had their time in. They were really doing it. I think I learned more from those three guys than I could have learned in a lot of music schools. When we were doing “Beverly Hills 90210” way back, we’re in the trailer and they were planning to do this one song a capella. They were putting their harmonies together and it just completely threw me for a loop. And you never stop learning in a group like that.

Y!W: Holdin’ On was released about the time you assumed directorship of the group, and since then the group has almost assumed a new register. What did you do arrangement-wise to compensate?

JW: Being one of the guys who is dropping, I was on that Holdin’ On album singing real high — Clarence likes real high harmonies. We compensated by taking the register down, but we still have the high backgrounds. Jimmy still has his range and, him and I have been a part of the background for the last 18 years, really before I was even ready.

Y!W: After 70 years singing gospel, what other avenues are there left for the Blind Boys to explore?

JW: Every time we go in, it’s the same dilemma. What style do we do, or how do we approach it. We usually don’t know until we get in there. From the beginning, I would just go in and do whatever I was told. As time went on, they started asking for my input, and that started with Spirit of the Century once we got to Capital. It was about that time our audience started to change. Our mostly black audience became white as we played more festivals, and they got a lot younger too.

Y!W: How’s Clarence’s health? Is he still performing?

JW: Very rarely. He has dialysis three times a week, so he retired himself from overseas touring the last time we were there. He got sick a couple of times overseas, which is scary. The places where they didn’t speak English was a little unnerving for him. For the Winston-Salem show, it’s a little far for him to travel, but you never know. We will see him in December for recording, but I don’t know which dates he’ll make yet.

Y!W: This show being so close to Christmas and given how increasingly infrequent the performances are becoming, is there a particular affection for holiday shows?

JW: Yes, definitely. We’ve done Christmas tours for the last eight years of so, and when that time of year comes around there’s a special feeling. It’s like being home with your family, that’s what it’s like for us. We’re a family. That time we’re together, it’s Blind Boys Christmas for all of December, sometimes right up until Christmas Eve. We love that time of year. It’s a different feeling for everything — not just performing, but eating out on the road. We love to eat.