Who: The Blind Boys of Alabama, with Sara and Sean Watkins
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 15
Where: Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, UC Davis
Tickets: $25-$49 general, $12.50-$24.50 for students; www.mondaviarts.org or (530) 754-2787
The Blind Boys of Alabama will return to the Mondavi Center at 8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 15, with their touring holiday show — and this year, the Blind Boys are bringing bluegrass/country fiddler Sara Watkins and her elder brother Sean, a guitarist, as their opening act.
The Blind Boys of Alabama — sometimes known as the Five Blind Boys of Alabama during phases of their career — originally got together in 1939 at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in Talledega, Ala. The group toured for decades on the Southern gospel circuit, performing at countless churches, community halls and other venues. They started recording in 1948, releasing numerous discs on various labels over the years.
The Blind Boys came to the attention of Broadway audiences in 1983, when they played a prominent part in the popular musical “The Gospel at Colonus,” and that show’s success led to bookings around the country at colleges and theaters where gospel groups had not often performed in the past.
Since then, the group has built a big following. Over the past 30 years, the Blind Boys have received five Grammy Awards, performed at the White House and collaborated with all manner of pop stars. Original member Jimmy Carter (born in 1929) still sings and tours with the Blind Boys, while other younger members of the group have joined in recent decades.
The group’s 2003 Christmas album, “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” contains much of the material featured in the holiday show. But the group’s most recent disc — “Take The High Road” (2011) — features the Blind Boys in a role they’d never previously explored on an album: a full-length set of duets with country/western artists.
The blending of black gospel and country sounds is more common than you might think. Many white country artists have recorded gospel albums (including songs that originated in the black church), and many gospel singers have long enjoyed country music on the radio.
“All my life, I’ve loved country music,” Carter told an interviewer earlier this year. “I was raised up around it. Back in the 1940s, I remember listening to Hank Williams and so many others. Their voices were great. The writers were great. And every song had a meaning. I still have loads of country music in my home and I play it all the time.”
So perhaps it should not come as a surprise that the opening artists on the Blind Boys holiday season tour are the Watkins siblings. Sara Watkins took part in five albums with the band Nickel Creek and she released a self-titled solo album in 2009.
In addition to fiddling, Watkins is a singer/songwriter and occasionally performs on ukelele and guitar as well. She’s been a regular guest on Garrison Keillor’s long-running NPR show “Prairie Home Companion,” and even served as guest host of the program earlier this year. She is at work on her second solo album.
Tickets for the concert are $25-$49 general, $12.50-$24.50 for students, available at www.mondaviarts.org or (530) 754-2787.
— Reach Jeff Hudson at [email protected] or (530) 747-8055.