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The Blind Boys of Alabama Still Have Work to Do

The band wears shades: Jimmy Carter (center) and Eric “Ricky” McKinnie (second from right) are the only current blind members but the rest of the band dons shades in solidarity. "I like that they do that, too," says Carter.EXPAND
The band wears shades: Jimmy Carter (center) and Eric “Ricky” McKinnie (second from right) are the only current blind members but the rest of the band dons shades in solidarity. "I like that they do that, too," says Carter.
Jim Herrington

At the age of 87, Jimmy Carter is the last surviving original member of the Blind Boys of Alabama.

The group are touring to commemorate the Christmas season. We caught up with him the day after Thanksgiving in Canada, where that particular holiday is not observed. While Carter gives thanks every day regardless, he can't help but muse, "I didn't have no turkey, but I’m gonna try to get some today."

There's much to be thankful for. Since the 2001 release of their Spirit of the Century album on Peter Gabriel's label, Real World Records, the band have been on a roll. They've won six Grammys, including a Lifetime Achievement Award, and been inducted into the Gospel Hall of Fame and the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. Their cover of Tom Waits' "Down in the Hole" became the opening theme for the first season of the HBO series The Wire.

But it was their recording of "Amazing Grace," which substituted the original melody with that of "House of the Rising Sun," that jump-started their gospel renaissance in earnest. It's become their signature song.

And it almost didn't happen

"We didn't want to do it. We rejected the song," says Carter. "The producer says, "Let's try it, and if you all don't like it, we won't do anything with it.' That song was the cause of us winning that first Grammy. We didn't change the meaning of the song. It's still gospel. We just changed the arrangement."

The group are also touring behind the release of a new collaborative album with singer-songwriter Marc Cohn called Work to Do. Cohn penned several songs from their previous album Almost Home. It was a departure in that it contained all-new songs tailor-written for the Blind Boys based on interviews they'd given detailing their life's struggles. One song, "Let My Mother Live," recounted when Carter was first sent to the Talladega Alabama School for the Negro Blind in 1939.

"I was a little boy. I was afraid. And so I prayed to God to let my mother live till I was grown. And He did. She lived to be 103 years old," Carter laughs. The song was nominated for a Best Roots Performance Grammy, but they lost it to another band from their home state, Alabama Shakes.

Work to Do — the first Blind Boys album without group founder and longtime leader Clarence Fountain, who died in 2017 — plays more like a Marc Cohn album featuring the Blind Boys of Alabama. They will tour together in spring 2020. Its compelling mix of studio and live tracks also throws in some Cohn hits like "Walking In Memphis," which, unlike gospel, glorifies an earthly king, Elvis Presley.

Carter admits that he doesn't "feel comfortable singing it," but stresses that "we haven’t changed. We’re just backing up somebody else, that’s all we’re doing. I like backing up Marc 'cause he has a lot of good stuff going."

From their earliest professional incarnation as the Happy Land Jubilee Singers in 1944 to now, the Blind Boys of Alabama have resisted secular music.

Hearing Ray Charles turn "It Must Be Jesus" into "I Got a Woman," and James Brown co-opt the hymn “This May Be the Last Time” while giving himself a writing credit made the Blind Boys even more determined to stay the course.

"We started out only singing gospel, and that's what we’re gonna do until we stop. We don't intend to deviate from that," Carter says. Like gospel, rock 'n' roll music has had its peaks and valleys. "But there will always be gospel; it will never die because it's the good news of God."

Work to Do features a live version of "Amazing Grace," which contains Carter's wordless riffing at the end. Using his head voice and diaphragm, Carter makes an unearthly sound that's a cross between a didgeridoo and a sitar.

When asked if that is him communicating directly to God, he laughs. "It's just something I do," he says. "I used to be able to do it for 67 seconds, but I can’t do it that long now. I’m getting old.

’’When I go out on the stage, I am no longer Jimmy Carter. I am the spirit of God. That's the way I look at it."

The Blind Boys of Alabama are scheduled to perform Friday, December 13, at Chandler Center of the Arts. Tickets are $38 to $58 via Ticketmaster.

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