THE Blind Boys of Alabama are living legends. Formed in 1944, the gospel group has performed for presidents and royalty, won five Grammys, including the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and collaborated with the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Tom Waits, Lou Reed, Willie Nelson, and Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, who produced their 2013 album I'll Find A Way.
The group has performed through the years of Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement (they performed at several benefits for Martin Luther King, Jr.), and onward all the way into the Obama administration.
With a career spanning 71 years, founding member Jimmy Carter remains true to the Blind Boys mission: to plant the seed of God’s love around the world. They headline the A-Town Get Down at 8 p.m. on Saturday.
The Blind Boys were formed at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind—what was that initial bond like? How did you sync as musicians?
Jimmy Carter: Well, that's how the Blind Boys met up, at a school for the blind in a little town called Talladega. Every blind child that got an education came to that school—that's how we all met. We had to get to know one another first, and then we started singing together. We sang in mixed choir, male chorus...there was another quartet on the road already, Golden Gate Quartet. They we idolized those guys. They could see, but they could sing real good. We said, if they could do it, we could too! We just decided to try it and here we are.
Were you singing before you went to school?
Jimmy Carter: I think that I was born to sing—I think that was a gift from God. I've been singing all my life. Ever since I can remember, I was singing around the house, pretending I was on the radio. This is my calling. I'm just doing the best I can.
Did you always sing gospel?
Jimmy Carter: It's all I ever did, although I like all kinds of music, not just gospel. I like all kinds, but my singing career is built up around gospel music.
The Blind Boys were formed in the Jim Crow era and were extremely active in the Civil Rights Movement. How do you feel music, in particular gospel, can bring about social change?
Jimmy Carter: They say music can calm the wildest beast. We just get out here and sing to them let them know what we're singing about and hope that we always try to plant a seed. We can't make the seed grow, but we can plant it. It's up to them to make it grow. We get out, plant the seed, and hope it will grow and make a great harvest.
Gospel's your mainstay, but you've dabbled in rock and pop as well.
Jimmy Carter: We've played with secular people, but we never deviated from our mission.
Collaborated with rock and pop musicians, I should say.
Jimmy Carter: Well, a lot of folks don't know, a lot of these secular people came out of the church. They knew about gospel all day. It was a privilege to have them work with us and for us to work with them. It was a mutual thing.
Do you find that there's something inherently spiritual about musical performance, whatever the genre?
Jimmy Carter: A lot of people don't understand what gospel really is about. I've had people who ask me, 'Jimmy Carter, what is gospel? What do you mean when you say gospel?' The only thing I can tell them is that gospel is the good news of God. So that's what we do. We bring the good news to people, whether they accept it, we don't know about that, but we give it to them and hope that they accept it. This is our message. This is our gospel message: tell them the story that Jesus died so that we might live.
Is the dedication to that message what's motivated you to stick with it for this long?
Jimmy Carter: When people ask me that question, I ask them this way: I say, when you love what you do, it keeps you motivated. The Blind Boys have been an organization for 70 years. We're still trying to carry on, we've had to make some changes—people come, people go, people die. We're still going on, and we'll continue to. When you have those fans that respond to you, see how they love you, it keeps you motivated. You try to give them more—that's how we keep going.
You've had some really amazing performance opportunities—is there one that stands out as most memorable to you?
Jimmy Carter: I have two or three of those. The first one comes to mind is when the Blind Boys first won that Grammy. We started out a long, long way, way back—we didn't get a Grammy until 2001. That was something I'll never forget! We had the privilege of singing to three presidents at The White House three times. And we have a Lifetime Achievement Award.
What was it like performing at The White House?
Jimmy Carter: It was overwhelming. I'll never forget it, because we were singing to the Clinton administration, Bush, and the Obama administration...I guess especially the Obama administration. I never thought in my lifetime I would see a black president—but here I am singing to one! That was a great feeling.
What did you sing?
Jimmy Carter: Martin Luther King did a speech and he ended it with "Free at Last," so we sang that, and one or two more.
Do you have a favorite song that you return to?
Jimmy Carter: "Amazing Grace." That's my favorite song. People ask why, and it's because if it had not been for God's amazing grace, we wouldn't be doing what we do now. We'll be doing that one in Savannah.
How often are y'all playing these days?
Jimmy Carter: We do about 150-200 days out of the year.
Wow, that's a lot. Do you still enjoy the touring life?
Jimmy Carter: I like it—I'm not as young as I used to be. (Laughs). It's taking its toll.
Do you think you'll ever retire?
Jimmy Carter: I'm going to have to retire sooner or later! I don't know when—no time soon. I don't know...I'm not a young guy now. I had a birthday Wednesday.
Jimmy Carter: I’m not a spring chicken anymore, but I’m still in good shape!
So you recorded a Christmas album with Taj Mahal most recently—what's next?
Jimmy Carter: We're not going to record in 2015—we might do one in 2016. We'll just play it by ear. Whatever comes to us, we'll accept it make the best of it.
Anything you'd like folks in Savannah to know about the show?
Jimmy Carter: You tell ‘em, the Blind Boys are coming to Savannah, and when we leave, Savannah will never be the same!