Blind Boys of Alabama will perform in Durango
FARMINGTON — As a founding member of the seminal Southern gospel group the Blind Boys of Alabama, Jimmy Carter understands very well that the five Grammy awards the group has racked up over its career of more than seven decades have gone a long way toward cementing the group’s legacy.
So he was feeling particularly pleased about the recent news that the Blind Boys have been nominated for two more Grammys in the 2017 awards that will be presented in February: Best American Roots Performance for their song “Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time” and Best Roots Gospel Album for their contribution to “God Don’t Never Change — The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson.”
“Of course, it helps when you win,” Carter said during a telephone interview last week from South Carolina, where the group was preparing to perform before heading west for a show on Thursday, Dec. 15, in Durango, Colo. “When you’ve got five Grammys under your belt, it’s a big deal. We haven’t had one in a long time, and we might not win (this year), but I feel good about (being nominated).”
Such accolades only tell part of the story of a group that has left a deep imprint on America’s roots music scene throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries.
First achieving fame during the Jim Crow era, the Blind Boys of Alabama went on to became a fixture of the Civil Rights movement through their performances at events alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in the 1980s when they starred in the OBIE award-winning musical “The Gospel at Colonus,” then they backed British rocker Peter Gabriel on his 2002 album “Up” and performed with him on his ensuing world tour.
Over that time, they have performed at the White House three times, been inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, had their cover of Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole” featured as the theme song on the first series of the HBO series “The Wire,” and collaborated with artists ranging from Ben Harper, Steve Earle, David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders and Mavis Staples to Aaron Neville, Justin Vernon, Michael Franti of Spearhead, bluesman Charlie Musselwhite and country legend Willie Nelson.
Not bad for a bunch of guys who got their start harmonizing together as kids at the Alabama Institute for the Blind in the late 1930s. Carter said the heights the group has scaled since then would have been unimaginable to his younger self.
“When we started out, we had no idea,” he said. “We were not looking for (any) accolades or awards. We just wanted to sing gospel.”
In fact, he said, the boys in the group simply were enthralled with a vocal gospel group of that era called the Golden Gate Quartet and wanted to emulate them.
“We thought, ‘If they could do, we could, too,’” Carter said, laughing. “The rest is history.”
The members began performing together in the boys choir at the institute in Talladega, Ala., in 1939, and by six years later, they had dropped out of school and hit the road. Over the next seven decades, their fortunes would wax and wane, but the group remained devoted to gospel music, though it has strayed at times from its traditional roots, experimenting with funk and hip hop sounds, among others.
Carter, in fact, calls himself a devoted fan of country music.
“I like the old guys, not the new, modern guys,” he said, citing such figures as George Jones, Jim Reeves and Charlie Pride as his favorites. “I don’t care too much for contemporary country.”
Even though no one else in his family showed any inclination toward music, Carter remembers singing to himself around the house when he was as young as 7 or 8 years old. The vocal skills he and his associates in the Blind Boys would develop over the next 10 years were all self-taught, he said.
“I guess the Blind Boys were my mentors,” Carter said. “When I got with them, we all became a family. We were each other’s encouragement.”
Of all the accomplished artists the group has collaborated with, Carter said his most memorable experience was working with Harper on the group’s 2004 album “There Will Be a Light.” Harper produced the disc, which won two Grammys and became the group’s biggest commercial success.
“I enjoyed all of them, but our first experience was with Ben Harper, and he has to be my favorite,” Carter said.
A close second would the time the group spent with Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Gabriel, whose hits include “In Your Eyes,” “Sledgehammer,” “Shock the Monkey” and “Games Without Frontiers,” he said.
“He was a very nice fellow,” Carter said. “He would always take time out to introduce us himself. He seemed to really enjoy having us on his show. We even got on his record label.”
The Blind Boys lineup has changed considerably over the years — Carter is the only founding member left — but the group maintains its momentum, releasing a Christmas album with Taj Mahal in 2014 called “Talkin’ Christmas” that featured six original tunes.
The band is in negotiations with Amazon for its next studio effort, which Carter said he hopes to see released in 2017.
“It will be more or less a traditional gospel album,” he said. “We want to go back to what we do best.”
Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.
If you go
What: The Blind Boys of Alabama concert
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 15
Where: The Community Concert Hall on the Fort Lewis College campus, 1000 Rim Drive in Durango, Colo.
Tickets: $39 and $46, available online at durangoconcerts.com, by phone at 970-247-7657 or in person at the Durango Welcome Center at Eighth Street and Main Avenue in downtown Durango, Colo.