Exclusive interview. It’s been a long road for the legendary Blind Boys of Alabama, a vocal group that was founded more than 70 years ago and has earned accolades around the world, including Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Grammys and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as induction into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. Whether performing traditional gospel classics or contemporary spiritual music, the Boys have put their unique interpretations into every appearance they’ve made, and have appeared on recordings by Bonnie Raitt, Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, Charlie Musselwhite, Susan Tedeschi, Solomon Burke and many others. And, with the recent release of their latest CD, Take the High Road, the Blind Boys have added another accomplishment to their dazzling resume by performing more than a dozen great gospel tunes with some of country music’s brightest stars, including Vince Gill, Jamey Johnson, Lee Ann Womack, Willie Nelson, Hank Williams, Jr. and the Oak Ridge Boys on the excellent title cut. Founding member Jimmy Carter recently took time out to chat with Nashville.com about the group’s latest project, as well as about how he knows he was “born to sing.” If you don’t yet have this cd, you need to get it. And, if you want the ultimate treat, go check out the Blind Boys in person tonight when they perform at the Franklin Theatre in Franklin. For ticket information, go to: franklintheatre.com/tickets/music/. Here’s some of what Jimmy Carter had to say.
Nash: I love the new record and I think you and all the others in the group are singing as well as I’ve ever heard you.
Carter: Thank you. This is our first effort as far as doing a country project, but we are testing the water.
Nash: I know you were exposed to country music early in your life . . .
Carter: Oh, yeah, I love it.
Nash: Were there some early artists or early songs that particularly attracted you to country?
Carter: Country music had a story. In every situation that you’re in, country music has a story about that. If you lost your woman, they’ve got a story for that. Just stories about everything.
Nashville: It’s a little similar to the blues in that respect.
Carter: It is, exactly. Yeah.
Nash: Were you ever an Opry fan? Could you pick it up where you lived in Alabama?
Carter: Oh yeah. WSM, sure. That goes back to the early ‘40s.
Nash: Now, you and the rest of the group have performed on the Opry, haven’t you?
Carter: We’ve been to the Opry. Yes we have.
Nash: What was that first time like?
Carter: Oh, my goodness. When we got out there I said, “I’m honored to be on this Grand Ole Opry stage.” To be on the same stage as such people as George Jones and Jim Reeves, all those guys. Jim Reeves is my favorite singer of all time. That was at the Ryman.
Nash: I know your first meeting with Jamey Johnson was at an Alabama Hall of Fame ceremony. And he asked if you’d ever considered doing a country album . . . and then helped you get other country acts involved in the project. What was it like working with him in the studio?
Carter: When the session was over, I told him, “Jamey, I have recorded many records in many studios. And I have enjoyed this session more than I ever have enjoyed anyone.” It was just like a family. And he made it fun. It was a fun project.
Nash: Shouldn’t it always be fun? Obviously, it’s not going to be fun if you’re singing at a funeral, but . . .
Carter: I know what you mean. And you’re right. It should be always fun. And there’s never a dull moment with Jamey. When we first got to Nashville, I was telling him that George Jones has been a hero of mine for years. And I never had a chance to meet him. Jamey Johnson made that possible. I met the possum!
Nash: What were the circumstances.
Carter: He came in the studio while we were recording. He wanted to get on the project, but his allergies were bad at the time. Other than that, he would’ve been on there.
Nash: I understand this project just took a few days. Do you always work that fast?
Carter: We always try to get through it as quick as possible. It usually takes three or four days.
Nash: Talk about the mix of tunes. I really like that you had some old, classic tunes and some newer ones as well.
Carter: Jamey Johnson and our other producer, Chris Goldsmith, came up with most of the songs and Jamey’s idea to get most of the artists together. But we all agreed that we liked the songs.
Nash: I love the opening tune and title cut, “Take the High Road.” It sounds like a Pentecostal tent revival.
Carter: That was Jamey’s intention.
Nash: With the Oak Ridge Boys singing on it, the chorus sounded a little like “Elvira.”
Carter: It did, it did! They’re good friends.
Nash: “Take the High Road” is just about the best advice you can give someone on how to make it through life, isn’t it?
Carter: That’s right, that’s right. Take the high road.
Nash: Have you always been able to do that? Or has it been a struggle sometimes?
Carter: Oh, sometimes you come to a fork in the road where you’re gonna have to make a decision.
Nash: Was there one big fork for you?
Carter: There were some, there were some. I remember we were in Los Angeles, California, one time. We were offered a chance to cross over and do R&B. Sam Cooke did it, I’m sure you know him. We were in the same studio at the same time when they offered him the chance to do that. And they offered The Blind Boys the same opportunity. We thought about it, but we were determined to stick to gospel. Because we were all brought up in a Christian environment. We love God and we love to sing his praises. So we turned it down.
Nash: Any regrets?
Carter: No regrets.
Nash: And now you’ve reached the point where you can sing with those people, without having to abandon what you love.
Carter: That’s right. It worked out perfect.
Nash: I’m thinking about that song, “Take the High Road.” Have there ever been any times when you’ve wondered if God heard your prayers? Maybe because the answer wasn’t what you wanted or because it took so long to even get an answer?
Carter: No, I know he heard mine. And I’ll give an example. I was born without sight. And I always prayed to God to let my mother live to see me get grown. I didn’t want my mother to die and leave me as a child. He didn’t only let her live to see me get grown, she just passed away in 2009. She was 103.
Nash: What a great, long life.
Carter: Yes sir. Can’t nobody tell me about God. I know about him.
Nash: Mind if I ask how old you are now?
Carter: I don’t usually tell that, but I’ll tell you. I’m 79. [He’s turned 80 since our interview]
Nash: Well, you don’t look it. And you don’t sound like it.
Carter: (laughs) Usually when people ask me that, I tell them I’m past 50!
Nash: Let’s talk about Vince Gill’s song on the record. That’s probably one of my very favorites on the record.
Carter: I like that one, too. I like the way Vince Gill presents it. We told him how we wanted it, and he did it exactly the way we wanted it done.
Nash: I think he’s probably one of the three or four most talented people in this town in terms of his guitar playing, his song writing and his singing . . .
Carter: He’s a good producer, too. And a great fella.
Nash: Did you ever hear Hank Williams live or get a chance to meet him?
Carter: Never did. I would have loved to have met him. I just heard his records.
Nash: I would imagine he was one you heard as a child.
Carter: Yeah, I heard Hank Williams, The Delmore Brothers, Wayne Raney and those kinds of guys.
Nash: You mentioned earlier that you’ve never had sight. I was thinking specifically of the song you did here with Hank Jr., “I Saw the Light.” Is that something you’re really looking forward to when you do, as the song says, take that “bridge to heaven?”
Carter: I would love to be able to see. But people have told me that I’m not missing anything! (big laugh)
Nash: I guarantee you’re not missing anything sitting here with me!
Carter: I would have liked to have known what the world looks like. But God has a way, when he decides to take a sense away, he always gives you something to rely on. You can tell me about an object or scenery, and I can see that in my mind. I’ve got my own image, and it’s usually pretty good.
Nash: Let’s go back to “I Saw the Light.” Can you hear Hank Jr’s daddy in his voice?
Carter: I can hear him clearly. I can.
Nash: Did you come from a musical family? Anyone else who sang or played an instrument?
Carter: No, I’m the only one. My mom sang around the house and all that. But I’m the only guy who was gifted to sing. Singing to me was a gift. I was born to sing.
Nash: Have you always known that?
Carter: I think so. I knew it when I was five and six years old. I’d sing around the house and used to have a snuff box for a microphone. (laughs)
Nash: That’s a real gift, isn’t it? Knowing what you want to do early in life.
Carter: Right, that’s right. I have to say this. I believe if God had not taken my sight from me, I don’t think I’d be doing this. Because I think that’s why he took it, why he didn’t let me have it. He can see way farther down the road. And I think he took it because he wanted me to do this work for him. I think this is my calling. That’s why we try to touch as many lives as we can. Because I think this is what God meant for us to do. And I used to ask him. I had five brothers. I was the sixth one. I was the youngest. And I was the only one who couldn’t see. So I questioned him. Now I know why. He wanted me to do what I’m doing.
Nash: Do you think if you’d had sight, you would’ve been out playing baseball, running around and doing things that would’ve taken you away from music?
Carter: Yeah. And I always wanted to go in the military. After that, I wanted to be a lawyer. But he didn’t want that. He wanted me to do just what I’m doing.
Nash: I think he made the right choice.
Carter: I think so, too.
Nash: I think we’re about out of time, but I’ve really enjoyed talking with you. This has been a treat. Thanks so much for your time.
Carter: Thank you. It’s so easy to talk to you. I wish all the people were like that.
Nash: You make it easy.