Blind Boys of Alabama still preaching the gospel

(From The Guide, 12/4) –The Blind Boys of Alabama have succeeded in doing something nearly unheard of in the music scene: They’ve taken gospel music — real gospel music, ripe with references to Jesus and salvation and all that Sunday morning fare — and parlayed it into a career that has shattered the longstanding boundaries between rock and church music and won a great many mainstream fans along the way.

That means instead of playing church picnics or small Southern music halls, the Blind Boys have belted out soulful lyrics about conversion and faith to the mud-covered hippies at Bonnaroo, heard their cover of a Tom Waits song appear on HBO’s “The Wire” and shared the stage with Prince.

But it took a staggering seven decades — a preposterous span in music today — to get there. In those years the band adapted its style, said singer Jimmy Carter, shifting from traditional church songs to something more contemporary. But it’s all still gospel, he said, with the same core spirit.

“As time went on, gospel changed. You have contemporary gospel, you even have rap gospel now,” Carter said in a phone interview from his home in Montgomery, Ala. “You have to learn to please anybody. We sing different kinds of music, but its all gospel.”

The crossover success with mainstream artists has helped the band stay relevant and
attract young fans, but it’s those other artists — such as Ben Harper, who cut an entire album with the band in 2004 — who usually seek out the Blind Boys, Carter said. Harper, for instance, approached the band overseas and told them he had some gospel tunes they might be interested in.

“You got to understand now, most of these guys we work with, they came out of the church, they are gospel people,” Carter said. “They just chose to do another kind of music. They have gospel roots.”

The Blind Boys formed at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in 1939, with Carter as one of the original members. But it’s in the past decade or so that the band has seen mainstream success, playing different festivals, working with Aaron Neville and Peter Gabriel and lending their music to soundtracks from Disney’s “Brother Bear” to the TV show “Lost.”

“This is not a brag, but there are not too many people now who do not know about the Blind Boys,” Carter said.

Carter attributes their success to the broad appeal of a spiritual message. The lyrics may capture Southern-roots gospel, but all crowds, from Los Angeles to Bonnaroo, can identify with spirituality.

“Everybody has a little bit of God in them. When people hear gospel, they think about God. Everybody has his own religion, or his own what-he-wants-to-believe. We sing gospel, and we might not make a believer out of (people), but we have a message, and they receive the message,” he said. “As long as we can tell somebody about the goodness of the Lord, that’s what we’re all about.”

Link: Official Blind Boys of Alabama site.

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