Jimmy Carter Interview: Blind Boys of Alabama Founder on Faith and Hope
Written by Marc Parker and Melissa Benefield Parker, Posted in Interviews Musicians
Image attributed to Jimmy Carter
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, on February 11, 1932, Jimmy Carter is a founding member and the frontman of the Blind Boys of Alabama. He is the oldest living member of the group. Since the original members first sang together as children in the late 1930s (including Carter), the band has persevered through seven decades to become one of the most recognized and decorated traditional gospel, gospel roots and Americana music groups in the world. Over the past 20 years, Carter and the Blind Boys of Alabama have worked with Prince, Marc Cohn, Mavis Staples, Ben Harper, Robert Randolph and Peter Gabriel, just to name a few.
The Blind Boys of Alabama have won five Grammy Awards and are Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winners. They were inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2003, and into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 2010. They were also invited to the White House during the Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. The group continues to tour overseas and in the United States.
"I want to be remembered as someone that has tried to do what he could to help people in distress and tried to help people know how to live. There are some people that don’t even know how to live."
Carter has released his first solo album, Blind Faith. His hope is to bring to the world through the music on Blind Faith a gospel message and a source of peace. The album was produced and co-written by songwriter, guitarist Ron Pullman.
Jimmy Carter: Mrs. Parker, how are you?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I’m good, and please call me Melissa.
Jimmy Carter: Melissa. Well, okay. Call me Jimmy.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How are you doing today, Jimmy?
Jimmy Carter: I’m doing pretty good.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I’ve enjoyed your album Blind Faith. Why did you wait so long to make a solo recording?
Jimmy Carter: Well, thank you very much. I’m glad somebody’s enjoying listening to it (laughs). It’s my first solo album. I always wanted to do one, but I don’t know, really. Yes, I do. It just wasn’t the time. This here was the time.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Blind Faith was co-written and produced by songwriter Ron Pullman, and you two worked together on it?
Jimmy Carter: What happened was that I heard the songs and liked his material, and he liked my voice. So the rest is history (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Tell me about the title Blind Faith.
Jimmy Carter: That’s where we come from you, know. We didn’t know what kind of record we were going to do. We just said, “We are going out on blind faith.” That’s me. That’s why they call it blind faith. We stepped out in the water and didn’t know whether we were going to swim or drown (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Is there one song on the album that’s your favorite?
Jimmy Carter: If I had to choose one, I guess it would be “I Am With You Still.” That was a tribute to our founder Clarence Fountain. He passed away in 2017, and Ron wrote this tribute to him called “I Am With You Still.” You have to hear the record to appreciate what he’s talking about.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You and Clarence Fountain were childhood friends?
Jimmy Carter: I knew Clarence all of my life. We grew up together in school.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You’ve recorded with groups basically your entire career. Did it feel odd being in the studio alone?
Jimmy Carter: Well, I’d never done this before to just be by myself. I had to get adjusted to it. But I believe after I got adjusted, it came natural to me.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How much has your Christian faith meant to you over the years?
Jimmy Carter: Well, God has been with me ever since I can remember. There are incidents in my life that I had to go through by myself, but I knew I could make it because my faith in God is strong. It always will be. I’m going to do what he wants me to do until God says, “That’s enough.”
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Tell me a little about your childhood, Jimmy.
Jimmy Carter: I’m a Birmingham boy. I was born and raised in Birmingham. I went to school at the Talladega school for the blind. My parents were Christian people. My mom, dad and I were very close, and they had six boys. I don’t have a sister (laughs). But I’m doing alright.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did you lose your sight as a child?
Jimmy Carter: No. I was born blind. I went to the school for the blind in 1939, and that’s when I got my education.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Were you one of the founders of the Blind Boys of Alabama?
Jimmy Carter: I was one of the founders. When I left school in 1944, my mom said I was too young to tour with them. So they sent me back to school. I had to join them later on.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: When did you join the group?
Jimmy Carter: It was a long time ago, and we’ll leave it at that (laughs). At that time, there were two groups of blind boys. There was the Blind Boys of Alabama and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: There was also the Dixieland Blind Boys.
Jimmy Carter: There was the Dixieland Blind Boys, too. Yeah. You’ve done your research (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I try to do that (laughs). You’ve given us all many years of great music.
Jimmy Carter: Well, thank you.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I believe the Blind Boys of Alabama’s first national hit was “I Can See Everybody’s Mother But Mine,” released in 1949. Were you in the group at that time?
Jimmy Carter: I wasn’t with them at that time. I knew about the record, but I wasn’t with them.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I understand that singer-songwriter and musician Marc Cohn worked with the group on and off for several years. I love the song “Walking in Memphis.”
Jimmy Carter: Yes. We did that song. We did an album with him, and that’s how the “Walking in Memphis” song came about. He’s a great guy. We enjoyed collaborating with him.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I just watched the video of the Blind Boys of Alabama singing with Peter Gabriel. Your voices are amazing.
Jimmy Carter: Well, thank you. It was a very successful tour we had with him.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Have you ever worked with a vocal coach?
Jimmy Carter: No. We never had a coach. We just trusted in God, and he gave us the voices that we have now.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: When did you first realize you had such a remarkable talent?
Jimmy Carter: When people ask me that, I said, “We were just born to do this.” We have these voices. We have the ambition, and we said we were not going to turn back no matter what. God saw us through all of our trials and tribulations. We just trusted in him, and he brought us through.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Why did you guys decide to stick it out strictly playing gospel?
Jimmy Carter: We didn’t want any of that secular stuff. We have recorded with secular people, but we’ve never done any secular music. We are a gospel group, and that’s what we’re going to stay.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Is there a particular genre of music you don’t like?
Jimmy Carter: I don’t like Rap (laughs). I love the blues. I think the blues and gospel go hand in hand.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Are you the oldest in the group?
Jimmy Carter: I’m the elder statesman (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You will be 90 this year?
Jimmy Carter: I’m not going to put that out now (laughs). I’m the oldest one. I have a guy with me right now, Ron Pullman, who is a legend himself. He’s an authentic gospel song writer and producer.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How’s your health?
Jimmy Carter: My health is good. I can tell I’m getting old. But other than that, I’m alright.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Is there something you haven’t done in your life yet that you want to still do?
Jimmy Carter: Yes. I want to go to Israel. I want to spend a Christmas Day in Israel. I would love to go there.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Is that a possibility?
Jimmy Carter: I believe somebody’s going to take me up on that. I’m relying on blind faith (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How would you like for people to remember you, Jimmy?
Jimmy Carter: I’d like to be remembered as someone who touches people. When the group started out, we were trying to touch people’s lives and let people know there was hope. No matter how things might look, there is hope. I want to be remembered as someone that has tried to do what he could to help people in distress and tried to help people know how to live. There are some people that don’t even know how to live. So I’m trying to be someone that will say, “Where there’s light, there’s hope. You just have to live and do the best you can.”
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