The Blind Boys of Alabama head to the Cedar

The Blind Boys of Alabama use their Southern gospel charm to bring the “good news.”

The Blind Boys of Alabama deliver music designed

Cameron Witting

The Blind Boys of Alabama deliver music designed “to spiritually uplift” and share the gospel — can we get a witness?

Joe Kellen

Jimmy Carter — not the peanut farmer — is the last founding member left in the Blind Boys of Alabama. At 82, it’s impressive the guy’s still touring.

His gregarious personality was on full display when he spoke to A&E about his gospel group and their praise-fueled genre.

“We’re called to spread the good news of the Lord,” the singer said. “God got me into the gospel, and no matter who you are, we want to share it with you.”

The Blind Boys of Alabama first sang together in 1939 at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind — three of the five members are blind, hence their moniker. They didn’t officially become a group, however, until 1944. They’ve been touring steadily ever since.

The boys toured throughout the Jim Crow South, piling into cramped vans and playing to church crowds wherever they could.

“We weren’t harassed all that much, but we knew where we were,” Carter said. “It was a difficult time, and we have come a long way since then.”

During the ’40s and ’50s, the group was strictly gospel, developing playful and stylish renditions of the standards. Carter is known for holding the pinnacle note of “Amazing Grace” for longer than a minute.

The group began to embrace secular music as they aged. They applied soulful takes to the music of Tom Waits, Ben Harper and a whole legion of other modern artists, winning the group five Grammys since 2000. The group was also honored with a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 2009. Their most recent album, “I’ll Find a Way,” was produced by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver fame.

“We were asked if we’d like to do a record with Mr. Vernon, and I said, ‘Sure! Who is that?’” Carter said.

“I’ll Find a Way” features a track list peppered with a variety of musical seasonings. They range from speedy, piano-banging hymns like “Jubilee” to a rich marriage of horn and vocal harmonies in “I’ll Find A Way (To Carry It All)”.

For a group of men 70 and older, “I’ll Find A Way” tackles contemporary gospel with youthful fervor. There’s no shortage of powerful vocal riffs, pew­­-cracking hand claps and metronome-steady instrumentals gallivanting through the speakers.

Ricky McKinnie, who’s been with the boys for 23 years, said that popular music makes the group more accessible to a large audience.

“I’ve had non-religious people come up to me after shows and tell me that they want to try going to church,” he said. “That’s wonderful to me.”

 “I’ll Find A Way” features photos of the five men sporting silver suits and jazz-cool sunglasses, standing in a row and looking out into the distance with toothy smiles.

“We never expected any of this,” Carter said. “I feel blessed every day of my life.”

With a career as long as theirs, it’s not hard to believe.

 

What: The Blind Boys of Alabama with My Brightest Diamond
When: 7:30 p.m., Thursday
Where: The Cedar Cultural Center, 416 Cedar Ave., Minneapolis
Cost: $30-35