The famous gospel group’s Jimmy Carter talks with Pollstar about spreading the “good news” around the globe.
Performing and recording for more than half a century, The Blind Boys Of Alabama have stayed true to their gospel mission while incorporating elements of the pop music world into their repertoire through collaborations with Ben Harper, Bonnie Raitt, Jamey Johnson, Randy Travis, Lou Reed, Timothy B. Schmit and others.
The Blind Boys’ latest album, I’ll Find A Way, dropped this week on Masterworks. Produced by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, the album features appearances by White Hinterland’s Casey Dienel, Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs, Patty Griffin, Sam Amidon, and Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond along with Vernon.
While chatting with Pollstar, Carter spoke with Pollstar about how the they transform “secular” music into gospel numbers, their first pop music collaboration, and the best thing about being a member of one of America’s most respected vocal acts.
Atlanta Symphony Hall, Atlanta, Ga.
October 9, 2011
How do you and the other members of the group choose your material?
We are a gospel group. … If a secular song is brought to us … we don’t do secular music, so sometimes we have to change the lyrics to make it into a gospel song. You can change two or three lines of a secular song and make it into a viable gospel song. “Higher Ground,” the Stevie Wonder song – we had to change some stuff in that one to make it into a Blind Boys gospel song.
When we hit the stage we feel out our audience. I’m the spokesman on the stage. When we go out I tell the audience, “I hope we can say something or sing something that will lift you up and make you feel good.” We are looking to get a response from the audience. If we don’t get a response, we think we’ve failed.
About the individual members of Blind Boys Of Alabama: Is there a quiet member while another likes to socialize? Is there a funny member and/or a serious member?
Everybody has a different personality. I like to mingle with people. When I get through singing I like to mingle with the people. We have a guy who likes to go straight back to the hotel.
What makes for a great gospel song?
Gospel is the good news of God. If you’re talking about God you have a good gospel song going on. Gospel means “good news.” What makes for a good gospel recording? First of all, you have to know who you’re singing about. You’re singing about God so you have to focus on that. If you focus on that, don’t try to hide your emotion and sing what you feel … that makes for a good gospel recording.
While touring, do you ever have the chance to listen to the local gospel groups?
We do. There are some good local gospel groups in the cities where we go. They don’t have the desire to travel because most of them have jobs but they sing good gospel music.
The Blind Boys Of Alabama have worked with many artists through the years. Any favorites?
All of them are good. Our first collaboration was with Ben Harper. He’s a secular guy but he knows his gospel music. … He’s a good writer, he’s written a lot of good gospel music and he’s one of my favorites. He’s a great gentleman, he knows his gospel. … It was a great experience to work with him.
When the opportunity to work with Harper was first pitched, were you hesitant to work with a secular singer?
We were until we met with these people, talked to them and listened to the material. We found out most of them knew about gospel. After we got together with them and it started jelling, it came out good.
Do you hear elements or traces of gospel in pop music?
Most secular guys, they chose to go secular but that doesn’t mean they don’t know about gospel. Everyone has this privilege to do what they want to do in life.
For example, Elvis recorded several gospel and gospel-influenced songs. Plus, when he was a young man he would go to churches just to listen to the gospel groups.
That’s right. He listened to the Blind Boys. We were in Tupelo and he came [to see us when he] was a teenager. He did some great gospel music.
Having traveled throughout the world, would you say gospel is a universal language?
It is now. Our first trip overseas was in 1964 [when] we went to Europe. At that time gospel was really top shelf, especially in Europe, and it still is. There are a lot of gospel groups that have left this country, went to Europe and stayed there. [There was] a quartet called The Golden Gate Quartet. Matter of fact, that’s what made us go on the road – when we heard The Golden Gate Quartet. They left America in the early 1940s and never came back. … Many have passed on but the quartet is still there, still in France to this day.
Gospel is universal. When we first started out in [Europe], they loved to hear the beat, the rhythm. Now they understand the words. … They know all of it now.
Who are some of the world leaders for whom you’ve performed for through the years?
We sang for George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. … We went to Beirut and sang for the leader there.
Did you meet the other Jimmy Carter?
We did. He wasn’t president at that time. We were performing for him someplace in Alabama and we did two or three songs. He was doing a Habitat [For Humanity] thing there.
What’s the best thing about being a member of the Blind Boys Of Alabama?
I’m with good friends. We’re just like a family. We have nothing but fun.
The best thing for me, being a Blind Boy, is to be able to sing the gospel, touch people’s lives, let them know there is hope, there is a God. You can reach out to him, he’s waiting to take you in, come into your life and give you a life.
"The Music of Prince," Carnegie Hall, New York City
March 7, 2013
Upcoming shows for The Blind Boys Of Alabama:
Oct. 4 – Austin, Texas, Zilker Park (Austin City Limits Music Festival)
Oct. 5 – Austin, Texas, Stubb's Bar-B-Q / Waller Creek Amph. (ACL Music Festival Late Night Shows)
Oct. 7 – Shreveport, La., Festival Plaza (Red River Revel Arts Festival)
Oct. 9 – Austin, Texas, Stubb's Bar-B-Q / Waller Creek Amph. (ACL Music Festival Late Night Shows)
Oct. 11 – Austin, Texas, Zilker Park (Austin City Limits Music Festival)
Oct. 12 – Austin, Texas, Stubb's Bar-B-Q / Waller Creek Amph.
Oct. 19 – Stateline, Nev., Harrah's Lake Tahoe
Oct. 24 – Washington, D.C., The Hamilton
Oct. 26 – New York, N.Y., Terminal 5 (Appearing with The Black Crowes)
Nov. 2 – San Francisco, Calif., The Fillmore
Nov. 7 – Minneapolis, Minn., Cedar Cultural Center
Nov. 8 – Milwaukee, Wis., Pabst Theater
Nov. 9 – Chicago, Ill., Old Town School Of Folk Music
Nov. 14 – Tarrytown, N.Y., The Tarrytown Music Hall
Nov. 17 – Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, Cidade das Artes (Back2black Festival)
Nov. 20 – Kingston, Ontario, Grand Theatre
Nov. 21 – Markham, Ontario, Flato Markham Theatre
Nov. 22 – Brampton, Ontario, Rose Theatre Brampton
Dec. 5 – Boulder, Colo., Boulder Theater
Dec. 6 – Gilbert, Arizona, Higley Ctr. For The Performing Arts
Dec. 7 – Poway, Calif., Poway Center For The Perf. Arts
Dec. 10 – Los Angeles, Calif., Walt Disney Concert Hall
Dec. 12 – Saratoga, Calif., Montalvo Arts Center
Dec. 13 – Davis, Calif., The Robert And Margrit Mondavi Center For The Performing Arts
Dec. 14 – Napa, Calif., Uptown Theatre Napa
Dec. 15 – Arcata, Calif., Humboldt St. University
Dec. 17 – Seattle, Wash., Benaroya Hall
Dec. 18 – Yakima, Wash., The Seasons
Dec. 20 – Birmingham, Ala., WorkPlay Theatre
Feb. 8 – Bethlehem, Pa., SteelStacks (Blast Furnace Blues Festival)
Feb. 9 – Hillside, N.J., Enlow Recital Hall
Feb. 22 – Charlotte, N.C., Neighborhood Theatre (Appearing with Jim Lauderdale)
May 21 – Dublin, Ireland, National Concert Hall
Please visit BlindBoys.com for more information.