Southern gospel done right will give you chills. Growing up in the same area as The Blind Boys of Alabama, Rock Hall of Fame Director Terry Stewart once noted in his hall blog the stark difference between the Boys' and his all-white Methodist church's renditions of "Onward, Christian Soldiers." Stewart described himself as "taken aback" by the screams, hoops, hollers and calls that accompany The Blind Boys' amazing singing: "It was unlike anything I had ever heard before."
"When we started out, we weren't able to sing to white people," says founding Blind Boys member Jimmy Carter in response to Stewart's story. "But as time went on, it's gotten so we could do that, and we found out white people love The Blind Boys. We try to bring the spirit in; however the spirit leads, that's the way we go."
The group was founded 73 years ago at the Alabama Institute for Negro Blind. Their success generally remained limited to the gospel circuit through the '80s, due in part to their unwillingness to sell out their musical mission for commercial success the way some might say Ray Charles did.
"We are a traditional gospel group," Carter says. "Whoever we collaborate with has to realize that. If they don't, we can't talk."
The Blind Boys of Alabama got their big break in '83, when they were plucked to play a key role in the Obie Award-winning play Gospel at Colonus, a revision of Sophocles' Greek tragedy. They collectively played the role of Oedipus and the choir. (Last year they trekked to Athens, Greece, to perform in the very spot the play first appeared.)
The play brought long-awaited attention and acclaim, eventually leading to numerous Grammy nominations and five wins. In producers John Chelew and Chris Goldsmith, The Blind Boys found sympathetic souls whose judgment they could trust — the perfect example is their version of "Amazing Grace" done to the tune of "House of the Rising Sun." Only Chelew's persistence made that happen.
"We didn't want to do that at first," says Carter. "But [Chelew] said, 'Let's do it, if you don't like it, we won't put it out.' But it was so good, that brought the first Grammy. So we couldn't complain too much about it."
Chelew worked with the Boys on several albums, and Goldsmith continues to co-produce, including on the latest, last year's Take the High Road, co-produced by Jamey Johnson. The album finds the band returning to their country roots, by design. Carter and Johnson met while both were in Montgomery to receive an award.
"Somebody had told him that Jimmy Carter loves country music," says Carter. "So he and I got to talking, and he said, 'You want to make a record? I would love to produce one for you.' Next thing you know, we were in a Nashville studio."
Take The High Road is another strong entry in The Blind Boys' powerhouse post-millennial catalog. It's highlighted by appearances from Hank Jr. on his father's song "I Saw the Light" and the stirring Danny Flowers track "I Was a Burden," which features a terrific vocal turn by Lee Ann Womack. The Blind Boys have begun discussions on a new album, but Carter is tight-lipped with details — other than the fact that recording should be finished early next year and that "it will probably be a collaboration, but we're going to go in a slightly different direction."
In the meantime, they keep pushing. Carter's mother died just three years ago at the age of 103, so he's hoping to be around for a while longer, fueled by the music he makes.
"When you love what you do," says Carter, "when you love making people feel good, love giving people encouragement and hope — that's what keeps us motivated."