Blind Boys of Alabama bring inspirational gospel music to Durham

CorrespondentSeptember 12, 2013 

Blind Boys of Alabama.

COURTESY OF CAMERON WITTIG — CAMERON WITTIG

  • Details

    Who: The Blind Boys of Alabama

    When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday

    Where: Hayti Heritage Center, 804 Old Fayetteville St., Durham

    Cost: $34 general; $15 ages 30 and under; $10 for Duke students

    Info: 919-684-4444 or dukeperformances.duke.edu

The Blind Boys of Alabama must be doing something right. The veteran gospel act, which formed in 1939, somehow keeps on rolling.

“It’s 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.”

There’s 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 “I’ll 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 didn’t 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.”

It’s 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 it’s very important to be receptive to new ideas,” Carter said. “I always say that a mind works best when it’s like a parachute: it works better when it’s 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. He’s tremendous. And then there’s Willie (Nelson). We went on his bus and talked with him and he’s 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.

“It’s been wonderful,” Carter said. “So many talented people are fans of the Blind Boys of Alabama and we’ve benefited since they’ve helped us make some terrific music.”

The guests have added much to the Blind Boys canon, but at the end of the day, it’s 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.

“There’s 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 ‘I’ll Find A Way.’”

Carter, an octogenarian, isn’t thinking about retirement. “I don’t 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 we’ve touched people’s 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 don’t look at what we can’t 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.”

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