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Gospel's Blind Boys Meet Changing Times With Open Minds

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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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