First Listen

First Listen: The Blind Boys of Alabama

The storied Grammy-winning gospel outfit returns with a new album

Photo: Jim Herrington

Jimmy Carter answers the phone in his Birmingham home with a little weariness in his voice. “I’m tired,” he says. “We just got back from a trip to Canada where we were doing some shows.” And you can’t blame him for being fatigued. Carter, one of the original members of the Blind Boys of Alabama, and co-founder Clarence Fountain are both in their late eighties, but they still maintain a no-joke touring schedule that would test the mettle of bands a quarter of their age (a fall tour begins on September 9). During their 70-plus years together, they’ve won six Grammy Awards (including one for Lifetime Achievement), are in the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, collaborated with everyone from Stevie Wonder and Prince to Bon Iver and Lou Reed, and have performed at the White House for three presidents. They are, simply put, national treasures.

But the end of the road is inching closer. Their new album, Almost Home, serves as a wide-angle view of their career. For the album’s material, the Blind Boys’ manager Charles Driebe spent hours interviewing Carter and Fountain on camera, then whittled the footage down to a 30-minute segment which he then sent to various songwriters who used the pair’s spoken words for lyrical inspiration. They received more than fifty submissions, but chose only ten originals and two covers for the album. “Their lives are amazing and so rich,” Driebe says. “This is the emotional story of how they dealt with things. There was plenty of adversity, but also great moments.”

The three opening songs written by Marc Cohn and guitarist John Leventhal (who also produced the tracks) begin the narrative weave. “Let My Mother Live,” co-written by Carter, is a pleading, painful song that returns to the moment as a young boy when Carter’s mother sent him to the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind and Talladega. Other contributions come from the North Mississippi Allstars, whose blues-inflected “Pray for Peace” addresses the social and racial injustices the Blind Boys have lived through and, as recent events show, continue to plague our country today. But there’s hope and resilience, too: Bob Dylan’s classic anthem “I Shall Be Released” begins with a wobbly guitar before ascending to a glorious peak, with the band’s harmonies underpinning Carter’s impassioned lead vocal.

The Blind Boys also recorded another Dylan song, originally titled “Stand By Faith,” which was written during Dylan’s gospel period of 1979-81 and intended for the records Slow Train Coming and Saved, but has never been released nor even heard publicly. The Boys changed the words to “See by Faith” (with Dylan’s blessing) and recorded their stirring version at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, with the cameras running. The song appears as a bonus track on the digital version of Almost Home (available only on Amazon Music), and Garden & Gun is thrilled to premiere this slice of video heaven from the Blind Boys of Alabama. Watch the video for “See by Faith” here and check out an interview with founding member Jimmy Carter below.

The origin of Almost Home is very unique. Was it uncomfortable at all to hear these songs that came from your words?

Sometimes, these songwriters used direct quotes from us to write the lyrics. I think they did a heckuva job, but it was very interesting. John Leventhal who wrote the first three, I felt very comfortable with him. And we recorded these songs in four different cities with four different producers. We’d never done anything like that before.


You worked in New York, Nashville, Seattle, and Muscle Shoals. What was the experience like in Muscle Shoals?

It was at Fame Studios and it was my second time [there]. It was an honor to record in that room, it’s a very spiritual, magical place.


Some of these songs are very emotional, including one that you co-wrote, “Let My Mother Live.” That must have been difficult to revisit.

I was just overwhelmed [when she dropped me off at the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind in Talladega]. I didn’t know nobody. I didn’t know what to do, and it was just devastating to me. It’s a dreadful feeling. And my dad had passed, so I just prayed to God that he would let my mother live until I was grown, to see me through my adolescence and younger years. And he did.


Do you have other favorites on the album?

“God Knows Everything” is one. We serve an awesome God and there’s a line in there that says, “He knows where you’re going and he knows where you’ve been.” And the other one is “Almost Home,” because it’s kind of the story of our lives up until now. But there’s some things I want to do before I’m home [laughs].


Like what?

Well, traveling isn’t as easy—we’re no spring chickens. But I would like to see the Blind Boys go to Las Vegas or Branson, Missouri, and just set up for two or three months.


Oh man, you guys would kill it in Vegas.

I think we’d do all right there. We’d just need to go from the hotel room to the show, then go back to the room and go to bed.


Do you gamble at all?

No way. I stay away from that, that’s not one of my habits. I’ve got some, but that’s not one of them [laughs].