Episode 88

Blind Boys Of Alabama


February 10th, 2021

41 mins 43 secs

Season 4

Your Hosts

About this Episode

This week on the show, to help honor Black History Month, we bring you a conversation with members of the foundational gospel group The Blind Boys Of Alabama - including longtime singer Ricky McKinnie, and beloved senior member Jimmy Carter who has been with the group for four decades.

Formed in the late 1930s with talent discovered at the Alabama Institute Of The Negro Blind, the troupe has superseded its limitations by bringing its own high-spirited version of jubilee gospel throughout the world. Their music was often the backdrop to the civil rights movement as Martin Luther King JR. toured the south, and Jimmy and Ricky are amazed and grateful that their message was still ringing true during the Black Lives Matter protest movement of the tumultuous last year.

While the members of the band have changed through history, the group has stayed steadfast to preserving a kinetic church-based music that doesn’t seek to evangelize, but can bring people of all faiths together. Indeed, watching Jimmy and the other bespectacled members walk with hands on each other’s shoulders into the youthful crowds of adoring festival goers from Bonnarroo to Jazzfest is really something to behold.

Their body of work continues to grow. In the last few decades they’ve gamely collaborated with a wide range of secular artists from Peter Gabriel to Ben Harper to Bonnie Raitt, made an album with Bon Iver (the stellar 2013 release I’ll Find A Way) and shrewdly reworked the ominous Tom Waits classic “Way Down In The Hole” which became the theme for HBO’s The Wire.

Their newest full length Almost Home, a treatise on morality and mortality, is particularly moving. It features songs written by Marc Cohn, Valerie June, The North Mississippi All Stars and many others - and was the last record that longtime member and bandleader Clarance Fountain was a part of before he passed away. Fountain was part of the group for for nearly sixty years.

As Jimmy playfully mentions throughout the conversation, they’ve never let being blind stand in the way of doing what they do best: putting on a show. They’re entertainers at heart and it’s so small feat that they’ve brought a nearly lost form of swinging, soulful (and expertly arranged) gospel from the small southern towns where they grew up, all the way to the White House, where they’ve held court for three different presidents. They’ve won five Grammy Awards along the way.

Stick around to the end hear their rich cover of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released”.