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Higher Ground

Three acts reach new levels of creativity later in life.


Such is the case for John Hammond, Charlie Musselwhite and the Blind Boys of Alabama, three acts set to play the Carpenter Center next week.

While each in the lineup remains steadfast in a love of blues and gospel, all have recently branched out into new or unexpected areas. The Blind Boys' recent recordings feature gospel takes on tunes by Stevie Wonder, Prince and other distinctly nontraditional church-music types. Musselwhite's 2001 Grammy-nominated CD, "One Night in America," incorporates a fresh approach to the varied musical bag he grew up with in 1950s Memphis. Hammond's 2001 "Wicked Grin" found him performing a set of Tom Waits tunes, and his latest, "Ready For Love," continues to roam the musical landscape. There's plenty of Hammond's trademark slide National steel guitar, but he interprets tunes by George Jones, Los Lobos and Elvis Presley, in addition to performing his own composition for the first time.

"Life begins at 60," Hammond said during a recent phone interview, referring to his new Waits-influenced recordings. "It really opened me up to new material, new ways of doing things. It was very liberating."

This year's "Ready for Love" produced by Los Lobos' David Hidalgo continues to mine fresh territory.

"We had some fun in the [song] selection process," Hammond says, adding that he and his wife picked all the tunes. These latest songs also threw him some new vocal challenges. "George Jones ['Color of the Blues'] might be out of my league," Hammond notes with a laugh.

Hammond also records his own tune for the first time in a long career that started in the early 1960s. Although he came out of the rarefied Greenwich Village days commandeered by folk songwriters, Hammond has always been a slide-guitar blues interpreter rather than a writer. But don't make the mistake of saying his is a repertoire of "cover songs."

"I don't think of them as cover songs," he explains patiently. "I've always thought of myself as someone who takes a tune and makes it my own."

Although he's always written more than Hammond, harmonica cat Charlie Musselwhite also can turn most any tune he hears into his own. He rightly claims he's always tried to make each of his recordings "a little different" during his nearly 40 years in the business, but these days he's wrapping his laid-back vocals around an upfront mix of styles. Musselwhite rocks on Johnny Cash's "Big River," looks back on his youth with a jumping "Blues Overtook Me" and walks down somber roads for "In Your Darkest Hour," all on his 2001 CD.

But call it what you may, for Musselwhite it comes back around to the blues. His passion for the style began during his Memphis childhood when he first heard street singers wail and moan. Later, fostered by the early '60s Chicago blues scene, Musselwhite found a career with the harmonica.

"I didn't know I was preparing myself," Musselwhite recalls of his nights jamming on the bandstand with Chicago's best. "If I did, I'da been paying more attention. …[But] I've always loved the blues. …The blues is a feeling more than anything. You can play [blues chord progression] one-four-five all you want. But if you ain't playing with feeling, you ain't playing the blues."

Like Hammond, Musselwhite has crossed paths with the Blind Boys during his career and speaks from experience of their musical power.

"Sometimes you look out and see [an audience] in tears. I recommend [the Blind Boys] to everyone."

Original Blind Boys of Alabama founder Clarence Fountain says the group has recently had the chance to work this magic over the largest crowds of its long career. Formed in 1939 when current remaining members Fountain, George Scott and Jimmy Carter were 10-year-old students at Alabama's Talladega Institute for the Deaf and Blind, the group has for more than 60 years remained true to its original mission. A musical career is hard for anyone to forge. So how did a group of sightless, African-American youths from the South make it through mid-20th century America's racial and musical challenges?

"Our desire was to sing gospel. We made God a promise," Fountain explains. "Nobody but the Lord did it. God always has a plan. Hey, he didn't give us great success until we almost shut down. But hey, he gave it to us. He works it out in his own way."

Fountain said putting a gospel spin on Rolling Stones and Tom Waits tunes involved no compromise, and it has allowed them to reach a new audience. Even opening for rockers such as Tom Petty seems to fit.

"We know how to soothe the audience," Fountain says. "We've been [on the road] 56 years. We ought to know something."

Fountain says group members always had the final say about which songs to record. They also had the arrangement input, which stamps each tune with Blind Boy soul.

"We screened the songs. …We listened to the lyrics. We're not gonna do nothin' if it's too far off the track. We make it like it should be [and] we got a whole new audience now. We just put more … into it. We put the gospel feel to it. Not everybody can do that. That's an art. That don't come to everybody."

Fountain also echoes the recent musical sentiments of his friends Hammond and Musselwhite.

"I think it is a good thing to change. Listen, you got to change." S

The Blind Boys of Alabama with guests John Hammond and Charlie Musselwhite play the Carpenter Center, Monday, Feb. 17. Show at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $27.50 -$29.50 and are available through the theater box office at 600 E. Grace St. or Ticketmaster, 262-8100.

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