The Blind Boys of Alabama must be doing something right. The veteran gospel act, which formed in 1939, somehow keeps on rolling.
Its been a long time since this all started but we continue on since we have always been good at communicating, vocalist Jimmy Carter said during a telephone interview from Des Moines, Iowa. We talk things out. If something is bothering one of us, we talk about whatever we need to talk about. We also love what we do. We love singing gospel songs. That keeps us motivated.
Theres another important element that keeps the Blind Boys of Alabama intact and relevant: they take chances. Its latest walk on the sonic high wire is working with celebrated indie rock artist Justin Vernon of Bon Iver fame.
Vernon produced Ill Find A Way, which is released September 30. The uplifting album includes appearances by singers Patty Griffin and Sam Amidon and Vernon.
It was a joy working on the album with Justin, Carter said. We knew nothing about him. We didnt know he was (an alternative artist). When we were told about his interest in working with us, we found out about him and we were very excited. We trusted him and it worked out since he chose great material and he had some great soul food for us. It was well worth it for us to travel to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, to work with Justin.
Its not the first time that the Blind Boys, who will perform Friday and Saturday at the Hayti Heritage Center in Durham, have worked with a celebrated member of the rock community. The five-time Grammy Award-winning group has collaborated with musicians such as Lou Reed, Ben Harper and Willie Nelson.
I think its very important to be receptive to new ideas, Carter said. I always say that a mind works best when its like a parachute: it works better when its open. So we were open to working with Lou Reed and Ben Harper and it worked out very well for us. I never met anyone like Lou Reed. Hes tremendous. And then theres Willie (Nelson). We went on his bus and talked with him and hes so kind and mellow. We had fun working with him. Willie and Lou are both incredible musicians.
Tom Waits, Chrissie Hynde and Richard Thompson are some others who have joined the Blind Boys in the studio.
Its been wonderful, Carter said. So many talented people are fans of the Blind Boys of Alabama and weve benefited since theyve helped us make some terrific music.
The guests have added much to the Blind Boys canon, but at the end of the day, its all about the members of the group, which also include vocalist Ben Moore, drummer-vocalist Ricky McKinnie, guitarist Joey Williams, bassist Tracy Pierce and organist Peter Levin.
Theres nothing we like more than getting in a room and harmonizing, Carter said. We still love to create. We want to make new albums like Ill Find A Way.
Carter, an octogenarian, isnt thinking about retirement. I dont want to consider that right now, Carter said. I hope we have a few more years left. The music keeps me going. I want to do this as long as possible. But at some point we will have to stop. But there will be a legacy we will leave behind that I hope is that weve touched peoples lives and given people hope. We try to bring joy and peace. We want to show that there is possibility.
The group, which features three blind singers Carter, Moore and McKinnie do just that by recording consistently warm, moving songs.
We might be disabled but we dont look at what we cant do, Carter said. We look at what we can do. Nothing is stopping us from singing gospel music. Maybe we can provide inspiration for others. If we can do what we do, just think about what you can do.