Sometimes, all you have to hear is a few notes, and you know that a voice has been lived in; you can hear a long life of ups and downs, a rich and weathered sound.
That is certainly true of singer Jimmy Carter, one of the founding members of the Blind Boys of Alabama. The Grammy-winning group had its recording debut nearly 70 years ago; now, it has a new album, Almost Home. The album includes written to honor the lives of Carter and Clarence Fountain, the group's now-retired leader: Songwriters were encouraged to listen to in-depth interviews with Carter and Fountain and compose songs based on what they heard.
Carter and the band's manager, Charles Driebe, joined NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro for a conversation about these songs, the group's long career and what it means to be "almost home." Listen to that conversation at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Mr. Carter, when you released your debut single in 1948, did you ever think you'd still be recording all these years later?
Jimmy Carter: I had no idea. And I always tell the people who ask me: When The Blind Boys started out, we weren't looking for any accolades, awards or nothing — we just wanted to get out there and sing gospel music. But since the accolades came, we were glad to get them! [Laughs.]
No doubt. Charles Driebe, as the group's manager as well as executive producer of this album, Almost Home, you had an interesting approach. You came up with an intriguing way to invite songwriters to contribute songs for this album; can you tell us about that?
Charles Driebe: Well, the life experiences of Jimmy and Clarence Fountain, the group's longtime leader who's now retired, are very interesting, varied and long. We interviewed them, and sent those interviews to a group of very good songwriters and invited them to submit songs based on the lives of Clarence and Jimmy. We got about 50 submissions back — really a lot of great songs.
How closely do the lyrics follow those stories?
Driebe: Well, some of them are direct quotes from the interviews with Clarence and Jimmy. One in particular is the song that Jimmy sings called "Let My Mother Live" — the phrase "let my mother live 'til I get grown" came directly from his interview.
Jimmy, what was that song about?
Carter: It goes back — when I went to the school, it was a very difficult school to be in.
This is the school for the blind?
Carter: That's correct. And when I went, when my mom took me to the school and when she left me there, I was just overwhelmed. I didn't know nobody. I didn't know what to do, and it was just devastating to me. You put your seven-year-old boy in a school [where] he doesn't know anyone. He's just up there. It's a dreadful, dreadful feeling. And my dad had passed. I just prayed to God that he would let my mother live 'til I get grown, to see me through my adolescence and younger years. And he did.
Driebe: And he not only did that, Jimmy — he let your mother live until she was a 103 years old.
Carter: That's correct.
My goodness. Mr. Driebe, why was it important to do something like this, do you think? To keep a record like this?
Driebe: Well, Clarence and Jimmy are the only surviving original members, and the arc of their lives is mirroring the arc of some very important and sweeping changes in America and the American South. They have a unique experience with those changes, and the things that they've lived through are very good fodder for songs, let's put it that way.
Mr Carter, you and Clarence Fountain, as mentioned, are the surviving members of the original group. Unfortunately, Mr. Fountain couldn't join us. But in one of the interviews conducted with him, he was talking about how record execs tried to pressure the group to put out a blues or a rock record. He said, "I was in this record studio. One man told me, 'Name your price.' I said, 'I don't have a price. I'm gonna sing gospel.'
I want to hear from you about this; let's talk about "Stay On The Gospel Side," which speaks to that sentiment. Mr. Carter, why did you want to stay on the gospel side? You could have made it big in pop or rock or blues.
Carter: Well, we could have. But you know, when we started out, we made a pledge. We said, "No matter what, we were not going to deviate from gospel music." This was what we came out here to do and this is what we are going to do. We had a lot of people who crossed over, and in fact when Sam Cooke crossed over, we were right there at the same time in the same studio. And they offered us the same deal they offered him. But we turned it down, and I'm glad we did.
What's your favorite song on the album? What's the one that means the most to you?
Carter: I think it's a good album, but if I just had to choose one, it would have to be "Almost Home," I think.
Why? You're looking back at such a long career; what's the meaning of "almost home" for you?
Carter: Well, we've done a lot. I'm just about ready to — I'm not gon' say when, but I'm just about ready to stop. And so I got a few more things I would like to do before I do stop. But I'm almost home.