For nearly all of his life, Jimmy Carter has had a musical home within The Blind Boys of Alabama.
As a youth, he helped fortify the group's blooming vocal sound when it toured a black gospel circuit in a heavily segregated South. Now, as the lone elder from the group's early days, Carter has witnessed global acceptance of the Blind Boys' music, measured in a string of all-star collaborative albums and a subsequent handful of Grammy Awards.
But as he returns to Lexington to sing with the Blind Boys at a WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour taping Monday, Carter, 79, has a confession to make.
"I listen to all types of music," he said. "But my favorite is country music. It always has been. It's the message those songs carry. ... I like that."
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This spring, Carter's country preferences are getting a serious workout. The Blind Boys' new album, Take the High Road, is a collection of country gospel songs split evenly between collaborations with top Nashville stars (Vince Gill, Willie Nelson and Lee Ann Womack among them) and seven outrageously righteous tunes the group sings on its own.
One of the primary catalysts for Take the High Road is new-generation roots-country celebrity Jamey Johnson, who adds his barroom baritone to the traditional gospel meditation Have Thine Own Way, Lord and co-produces the album. With his help, the Blind Boys set up shop at a vintage RCA soundstage and recorded Take the High Road in just a few days.
"Jamey came up with the idea of having all these country stars on the album," Carter said. "We wound up with a great collection of legends. I was just happy to be part of it all because, being a country music fan, this kind of project was right down my alley.
"When the session was over, I told him, 'Jamey, I've done a lot of recordings in my time. But I've enjoyed this session with you more than any of them.' The atmosphere was so great. It was like a family gathering."
The resulting music on Take the High Road reflects such a vibe. The album-opening title tune, for instance, enlists the harmony help of the Oak Ridge Boys to create a vocal chorus of efficient gospel authority. A very different vocal dynamic drives Family Bible, on which Nelson leads a quieter acoustic meditation with the Blind Boys supplying a serene vocal backdrop. Womack, in further contrast, sings like a young Dolly Parton on the Danny Flowers salvation serenade I Was a Burden, on which the Blind Boys' vocal foundation creates an affirmation as immovable as a granite wall.
But the songs the Blind Boys take on without guests are just as absorbing, from the wiry spiritual sway of Muddy Waters' Why Don't You Live So God Can Use You to the solemn harmonies of Randy Houser's Lead Me Home to the summery stroll to heaven provided by the traditional The Last Mile of the Way.
The release of Take the High Road brings to a close a very fruitful 10-year period of rediscovery for the Blind Boys. In May 2001 the group released Spirit of the Century, a recording that opened up Carter and company to a contemporary arsenal of spiritually inclined songs by Tom Waits, The Rolling Stones and Ben Harper. Spirit, along with four of the five studio albums that followed it, earned Grammy Awards.
"Spirit of the Century, ... that's what really got things going for us," Carter said. "When we started out way, way back, we were singing to a predominantly black audience. The South was very, very segregated at the time, so we couldn't just cross over like we can now. When we had the privilege of singing to the mainstream, we discovered the mainstream had been waiting to hear us all those years."
The past decade has come with costs, though. When Spirit was released, Carter was one of three singers who met as children when the Blind Boys formed in 1939. Today, he is the lone founding member still on the road.
"We lost a great one, a very important figure, in George Scott in 2005. And Clarence (Fountain, the third co-founder), he's still alive, but he's not able to tour anymore because of some health problems." (Fountain appears briefly on Take the High Road.
"So people keep asking me, 'You've been singing such a long time. What keeps you going?' And I tell them, 'The only thing I can tell you is that I love what I do.' We love to sing gospel music. We love to get on that stage and hear the crowd respond. That keeps us motivated. You see, we're trying to touch lives.
"I hope I can keep doing that until God says, 'That's enough.'"