“When I heard Jimmy Carter sing that Bob Dylan song, it blew me away,” McKinnie remembered. “I said, ‘Jimmy, I’ve heard you sing a lot of things, but you attacked this song just like you’d been doing this kind of singing all the time.’”
Vernon, a multiple Grammy winner for the 2011 album “Bon Iver,” is a longtime gospel music and Blind Boys fan. In December 2012, the group’s Atlanta-based manager, Charles Driebe, arranged a meeting between the Blind Boys and Vernon at his Eau Claire, Wis., home studio.
The wintry trek of “four blind men from Alabama” through “snow of Biblical proportions” is poetically recounted in the “I’ll Find a Way” liner notes.
“It was cold on the outside but it was warm on the inside,” McKinnie said of the time the Blind Boys spent with Vernon in Wisconsin. “We didn’t know who Justin was. But it wasn’t about who he was. It was about what he had on the inside.”
Driebe remembers being thrilled to discover how prepared Vernon was for the project. “I was really impressed with his knowledge of music in general, his knowledge of gospel in particular, and his knowledge of the Blind Boys and their history,” he said.
McKinnie, who graduated from Atlanta’s Murphy High School in 1970, was born into a gospel music family. His mother, Sarah McKinnie, was with the Marvin Anderson Singers, and gospel artists were frequent guests in the family’s home.
“I met all the original members of the Blind Boys when I was 4 years old. Those guys used to sing in our living room,” McKinnie said. “I’ve actually been playing with the Blind Boys on and off for about 40 years, but I became a member 25 years ago.”
Though the Blind Boys have toured all over the world and been invited to the White House three times, McKinnie, who lost his eyesight to glaucoma in 1975, said his fondest memories are a little more personal.
“The greatest things to me were when the Blind Boys were inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and then won the Helen Keller award. The Blind Boys are not only a quartet, they are a black blind quartet. My motto is, I’m not blind, I just can’t see. And the Blind Boys have never lost that direction.”
As the last stop on the Blind Boys’ Christmas season tour, the two shows in the intimate Eddie’s Attic performance space were planned as a special treat for die-hard Atlanta area fans. But the occasion also will be a homecoming of sorts for McKinnie.
“I’m looking forward to it,” McKinnie said. “We’re going to have a great time singing some Christmas songs and some songs from the new album. The Blind Boys are coming to town.”