“I have always wanted to help people. I hope this project will energize people and change lives. Where there is light, there is hope; and where there is hope, there is a chance.” Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Carter is the last original member of The Blind Boys of Alabama and, remarkably, at 87 has released his first solo album, Blind Faith. He told me he wants this album to be “a ray of hope and encouragement.”
And that it certainly is. In nine songs which encompass gospel, blues, country and roots music and yet cohere wonderfully, Jimmy Carter’s positive outlook on life and faith shine through. The music is great, the lyrics and inspirational and it’s one of the albums I’ve enjoyed listening to most this year.
The album was produced by Ron Pullman – multi-talented guitarist, songwriter, music business manager, writer and wood craftsman – who wrote most of the songs on the album, and who says, “I spent a lot time trying to understand what Jimmy wanted; the feel and message, and the overall sound.”
Guests on Blind Faith include Charlie Musselwhite, Alan Parsons, The Mendelson Choir of Pittsburgh and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. They all provide a suitable backdrop to Jimmy Carter’s distinctive and still-strong voice, which is the highlight of the album.
Jimmy Carter has been a member of The Blind Boys of Alabama for forty years and has sung for three presidents, won five Grammy Awards, been inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and collaborated with a who’s who of the music industry, including Willie Nelson, Marc Cohn, Ben Harper, Peter Gabriel, Mavis Staples, Robert Randolph…the list goes on.
Carter was there in 1939, one of the boys at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind, when the Blind Boys started out and began to play church engagements, but he was too young to join them on the road. He began singing with them in 1982 and has seen them become the world’s premier gospel group, legendary musicians and hugely respected far beyond the gospel genre.
I had the great pleasure of chatting to Jimmy Carter while ago (check it out), but was pleased to get the opportunity to speak to him again, specifically about this excellent album, along with Ron Pullman.
Jimmy was in fine form, having weathered the storm of the pandemic. “I’ve stayed well. I have all of my shots and I’m doing good.”
From the kick-off I knew this was going to be an enjoyable chat. Before long, Jimmy was joking that “it’s my first solo album and, I mean, I’m beginning to like it!” It helps, of course, that there’s been so much positive feedback for all sorts of quarters, especially ordinary listeners who are finding inspiration and encouragement in it.
Taking over the interview, Jimmy asked me, “what’s your favourite song?”
That’s a hard one, actually, given the quality to choose from. I mentioned Lord Take Me, a gently rocking Americana track, with some rootsy violin by Ryan Joseph and an oh-so-cool guitar solo. The song morphs beautifully into Swing Low Sweet Chariot with the added harmonies of the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh. Then again, there’s I Love to Pray, written by Joey Williams, band leader of the Blind Boys of Alabama, which Carter puts across in a very personal way. Jimmy declares, “my faith is strong” and “if it gets rough, I start to pray.”
Jimmy Carter is a man who believes that God answers prayer, and he told me that “prayer is very important to me. When I pray, I think of the verse that says, the fervent prayer of a righteous man does much [James 5 v16]. If someone is connected with God, you can call him and he’ll hear you. That’s what I’ve been doing. I know what prayer will do. I know what God will do, and I know what Jimmy Carter’s going to do. He is going to stay right there with him.”
Talking of favourite songs on the album I wondered if Jimmy had one? “Yeah, I have one. I Am With You Still.”
This is a quite beautiful song, a tribute to Jimmy Carter’s old friend and fellow original Blind Boy, Clarence Fountain, whom we lost in 2018. The song features a choir of young people from the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and the Blind, the school which Jimmy attended when he was a boy.
There’s a great video for the song which shows the young people singing. Said Ron Pullman, “They got to go down and record in a real studio. They got the experience of going to the Sound of Birmingham Studio and it was just amazing.”
Ron went on to tell me that he and Jimmy had gone recently to visit the school again and brought signed CDs for all the students who had performed on the record.
“And it was most touching when Mr. Carter addressed these kids about how you have to stay fast to your faith. And, you know, the things that happened early in his life didn’t dissuade him – ‘I didn’t deviate from my faith!’ I could hear Jimmy calling out in the background – and he ended up performing for several white house presidential administrations and then on every major TV show. And of course, you’ve seen him perform many times around the world. So, it was a most inspiring speech Mr. Carter gave to the students yesterday. It was amazing. I got to tell you, it made me cry, Gary, because Mr. Carter was so inspiring.”
I Am With You Still is an incredibly powerful song about God’s presence with us. Jimmy told me that this is something that is very important to him.
“I was brought up in a Christian environment in my early life. My parents were Christian people, and they told me about God. They told me about Jesus and all of that. And then I had a personal experience with God – I have – and that built my faith. My faith is strong. That’s all I can say.”
The very personal nature of the record comes to a head in the final song, written by Joey Williams, Why Me. It’s a nice bluesy piece where we get some honest reflections on the fact of Jimmy Carter’s blindness.
Ron Pullman said, “In Why Me Jimmy starts out asking God, ‘Why me? Why was I blind? Because all my brothers were all healthy sighted individuals.’ But then at the end of the song, he’s saying to God, how could I have known that you would select me to do God’s work and would give me so many blessings.”
Jimmy added, in a remarkable testimony of faith, “Yeah. That’s what I felt. I felt that I was called to do what I’m doing. You know when I found out that all my brothers could see, except me, I felt all alone. I was blind, but God saw further down the road, he knew what he was going to do. He knew what he wanted me to do. Because I think if I had gotten my sight back, I don’t think I’d be doing what I’m doing now. He knew that that’s what I needed.”
Ron provided some detail about the recording of the song. “When we got into the studio with that song, we realized the third verse wasn’t written. And so we were trying to come up with writing a quick verse, and finally Jimmy says, how about I just go in there at the chorus and speak? And that’s what he did – we all got chills! And what you hear on the record is the very first take when Mr. Carter sat down in front of the mike and did it. I mean, we all got chills and it was a blessing right off the bat.
And the great Charlie Musselwhite plays on the song. And Peter Levin on Hammond B-3. Just so many people came together on that song to keep that bluesy, gospel feel. But I used to always say. blues is the cousin of the gospel. So we kept that real, real traditional.”
There’s a great song on the album called Dream On, on which the Blind Boys provide the backing vocals. As I listened to it, I love the fact that Jimmy Carter is still talking about having dreams, even though he’s reached a ripe old age. It kind of follows up a line in the title track, Blind Faith, where Carter sings about following the light that God shined for him when he was a boy. He’s followed his dream all these years, despite the difficulties along the way, including his blindness. “Well, you know,” he told me, “I still have a dream and I’m still following it.”
To add to that, however, Ron Pullman said that “Mr. Carter has an amazing dream still, and that is for this album to bring peace and serenity to the world.” Most people at 87 have already kicked back and forgotten about the ills of the world, but Jimmy Carter’s not finished yet.
In addition, there’s one particular dream Jimmy mentioned to me, that he and Ron are currently working on. “There’s one special thing I want to do before I retire, I want to go and perform in Jerusalem on a Christmas Day. That’s my dream right now.”
It’s one thing to dream your dreams when life is easy. But as you look at Jimmy Carter’s life, for sure there’ve been hard times – not least growing up in the Jim Crow South and, of course, his blindness. He remains resolutely positive:
“Well, you know, that’s when my faith comes in. Like I told you before, I have had a personal experience with God. I know what he will do. I know what he has done and know what he will do. All he’s asking me is to keep the faith and I’m going to do that. My faith is very strong.”
This positivity shines through every song in the album. But it’s not positivity for the sake of it, some attempt to make the most of things. There’s an authenticity here, a sincerity and a joy which is just part of Jimmy Carter. He’s a man who has learned, like St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians, “to be content, no matter what happens to me” because of the “great joy of the Lord.”
Ron Pullman spoke movingly of the great blessing it has been for him “to be able to work with an icon like Mr. Carter. It’s just been a life changing experience.”
Blind Faith finds Jimmy Carter in strong voice and ever-hopeful spirit. Ron Pullman has done a fine job of arranging the songs and assembling the perfect set of musical contributors for each song. It’s an album that will appeal to a wide range of listeners and one which will inspire and speak to each one.
Thank you, Jimmy Carter, for your message of peace and encouragement in these dark times.