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Gospel's Blind Boys Meet Changing Times With Open Minds

I'll Find a Way is the latest album in The Blind Boys of Alabama's seven-decade run. Left to right: Ricky McKinnie, Paul Beasley, Jimmy Carter, Ben Moore, Joey Williams. (Courtesy of the artist)

The men behind the new album I'll Find a Way may be in their 70s and 80s today — but they're still The Blind Boys of Alabama.

The original members of the gospel group met in the 1930s at at the Alabama Institute for the Blind. Since then, The Blind Boys have won five Grammys and plenty of other awards for their music. Jimmy Carter — the musician, not the former president — was there from the beginning.

"When the Blind Boys started out, we weren't even thinking about all these accolades and all that stuff," says Carter. "We just wanted to get out and sing gospel and tell the world about gospel music. But changes came and we had to change with the times."

That's no small undertaking, considering the times their music has lived through. They formed in the Jim Crow era, lent their voices to the civil rights movement, and have now witnessed the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

"I was never fortunate enough to meet Dr. King, but we were at some of his rallies and I hope that our music helped to change what was," he says. "We've come a long way. We've got a long way to go but we've come a long way — and I hope that we've been a part of that."

I'll Find a Way features some gospel favorites, but there are a few modern selections as well. That may be the influence of the album's producer, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver.

"I've been kind of on a roll doing my own thing for a while," Vernon says, "and I hadn't had that magical opportunity in life to sort of be tested by a great thing. Making a record with The Blind Boys of Alabama was that great thing for me, and I truly tried to step up to that plate."

For Jimmy Carter to work with a young artist is a wonder all its own: He told NPR a few years ago that he wasn't the greatest fan of contemporary music. Now, he seems to be coming around.

"I have an old saying," Carter says. "The mind is like a parachute: It works better when it's open."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In this country, our colleague David Greene has some new music from an old group.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "GOD PUT A RAINBOW IN THE CLOUD")

THE BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA: When they put old Daniel in the lion's den, Lord put a rainbow in the clouds...

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

These men may be in their 70s and 80s, but they're still the Blind Boys of Alabama. The original members met in the 1930s at the Alabama Institute for the Blind. They have won five Grammys and plenty of other awards for their gospel music. Jimmy Carter, the musician, not the former president, was there from the beginning.

JIMMY CARTER: When the Blind Boys started out, we weren't even thinking about all these accolades and all that stuff. We just wanted to get out and sing gospel and tell the world about gospel music. But changes came and we had to change with the times.

GREENE: Think of the times their music has lived through. They formed in the Jim Crow era, they lent their voices to the civil rights movement, and now they've seen the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

CARTER: I was never fortunate enough to meet Dr. King, but we were, you know, at some of his rallies and I hope that our music helped to change, you know, what was. You know, we've come a long way. We have a long way to go, but we've come a long way and I hope that we have been a part of that.

GREENE: What a voice. He and the other Blind Boys are out this week with a new album. There's some old gospel favorites, but there's also a modern - well, relatively modern - song, Bob Dylan's "Every Grain Of Sand."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERY GRAIN OF SAND")

THE BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA: I have come to understand that every hair is numbered, like every grain of sand...

GREENE: That younger voice you hear there is indie musician Justin Vernon, the front man for the band Bon Iver. Vernon produced the new Blind Boys album.

JUSTIN VERNON: I was touched and I was honored to be thought of. I've been kind of on a roll doing my own thing for a while and I hadn't had that magical opportunity in life to sort of be tested by a great thing. And making a record with The Blind Boys of Alabama was that great thing for me.

GREENE: Jimmy Carter told NPR a few years ago that he didn't love contemporary music. He seems to be coming around.

CARTER: I have an old saying that says the mind is like a parachute, it works better when it's open. So we are open for any kind of material, you know, no matter who the artist is. As long as they have good material and we like it, that's fine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERY GRAIN OF SAND")

THE BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA: I gaze into the doorway of temptation's angry flame, and every time I pass that way I always hear my name...

GREENE: The Blind Boys of Alabama. Their new album, "I'll Find A Way," is out this week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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