Last week Jimmy Carter turned 85. No, not the former President (he’s 89). This Carter is the leader and only original touring member of Grammy-winning gospel vocal group the Blind Boys of Alabama. He joined the group as a child at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in Talladega where it was founded in the late 1930s-early ’40s.
At 85, Carter emcees the shows every night – a role he revels in. Saturday the Blind Boys of Alabama and Jim Lauderdale headline the Urban Ministry Center’s first HousingFest to raise money to permanently shelter the chronically homeless.
Seventy years after the Blind Boys’ first professional performance, Carter also still records with a bevy of the hip young musicians who helped to introduce the Blind Boys to a new generation – something the group began exploring about 15 years ago as its popularity grew through collaborations with Robert Randolph and Peter Gabriel. Its 2013 album, “I’ll Find a Way” is produced by fellow Grammy-winner Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. Carter had never heard of Bon Iver when the band’s manager brought up Vernon’s name.
“I said, ‘Fine. Who is he?’” Carter recalls, calling from his home in Birmingham. “A lot of (the artists we’ve worked with) I hadn’t even heard of. They had heard of us. Everyone we’ve worked with has been exceptionally good. Our first collaboration was with Ben Harper, and then after that it was Peter Gabriel and going on. All of them thought it was super to work with us, and we thought the same thing about them.”
For “I’ll Find a Way” the Blind Boys braved the rural Wisconsin winter in December, but found Vernon’s home and heart warm and welcoming. Vernon and his friend Phil Cook (of Megafaun) grew up devouring old gospel records and selected some familiar, if nearly forgotten, gospel songs as well as contemporary tunes by Midwestern songwriters, including Bob Dylan, for the Blind Boys to record.
Vernon also suggested new ideas as well as guests Patty Griffin and members of lesser- known indie bands like tUnE-yArDs and My Brightest Diamond.
“During the later years we have tried to get more young people involved in our music,” Carter explains. “All these collaborations have helped. Most of these (artists) relate to young people. We have more young people at our concerts now than ever before.”
The record features former band leader Clarence Fountain, who has been sidelined from touring due to diabetes for several years. He recorded bass vocals in Birmingham. Because Fountain and Carter are both diabetic, Carter says the group has committed to singing at many diabetes-related fundraisers. But Carter is up for singing for any cause he deems worthwhile.
“My philosophy is if you have been any way successful, you should give something back to the community. That’s what we do. We’ve been reasonably successful, so any kind of benefit we can do, we don’t mind doing that.”
In their youth the Blind Boys sang at fundraisers for Martin Luther King Jr. and have since worked with organizations like President Jimmy Carter’s Habitat for Humanity. He says his biggest achievement (other than receiving the first Grammy in 2001) is singing for three presidents. He has the unusual perspective of having experienced America from World War II through the civil rights era to today and having sung for many world leaders.
“I have been just about on every continent. I’ve been in a whole lot of countries,” he says when asked about the current state of the U.S. “I love America, but we still have some fixing up to do, I think.”