In 1939 at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind, a young Jimmy Carter (no, not that Jimmy Carter) befriended a few of his fellow students who were similarly passionate about music. They soon created The Blind Boys of Alabama, which has become an internationally renowned gospel group that's played with everyone from Curtis Mayfield to Tom Waits and even Ben Harper.
When I talked to Carter from his home in Birmingham, Ala., last week, he was enjoying a quiet day at the house, a rare treat for the founding member who's got to be near his 80s (he politely declined to answer when I said, "Mr. Carter, may I ask how old you are?").
Age has affected neither Carter's love of music nor his desire to continue touring. But just how does he do it?
"People ask me that question all the time and I tell them, 'we love what we do.' The people are so receptive, it keeps you motivated," Carter says. "To go out on that stage and get that feeling... Oh man, it's very rewarding."
Life hasn't always been such a breeze for Carter, who's experienced more than his fair share of struggles.
"When we started out, we were in the segregated South. You know how that can be," says Carter, after I made a Southerner-to-Southerner connection by informing him I hail from east Tennessee.
"At that time we knew our place and it was kinda hard to sing hard at night and not have a decent place to rest, but we were determined and dedicated," explains Carter who says that in the early days, the six-man band would often all share a room in a run-down boarding house.
Not one to dwell, Carter and his band, which has gained and lost members over the years, soldiered on.
"I'm an optimist, I always think positive," says Carter
He's made a habit of surrounding himself with likeminded individuals, such as Ben Harper, who called the Blind Boys in 2004 with the hopes of collaborating on a song.
"The next thing I know, we're doing a full album," says Carter, adding that the collaborative 2004 album, Let There Be Light, was an experience he'll never forget. After the record was released, Harper toured with the Blind Boys to places as far away as Istanbul.
Most recently, the Blind Boys collaborated with Willie Nelson as well as a host of other well-know country stars like Vince Gill and Lee Ann Womack, to produce Take the High Road, which was released this past spring.
Recognizing that Carter, a devout Christian and the front man for a gospel band of like-minded black men, might not have a lot in common with Willie Nelson, I asked what it was like to work with the country icon who, among other things, openly supports the legalization of marijuana.
"Willie is a nice fellow," Carter says genuinely. "I had a nice conversation with him on his bus. He has his lifestyle and I have mine, but I enjoyed him," explains Carter, a lifelong fan of classic country.
But it wasn't until Carter was introduced to rising country star and producer Jamey Johnson that the Blind Boys actually got around to doing a country album.
"I have been lobbying to do it for a long time," says Carter, who adds that it was the first time his band ever had the pleasure of recording in Nashville.
"This one I think I enjoyed more than anyone of them. It was like family," says Carter of the experience.
"We're testing the waters and I hope we don't drown."
No need to worry about that. The New York Times noted that Take the High Road was the "venerable gospel group's first organized foray into country music, and it couldn't have gone much better." The Huffington Post's Radley Balko called the Blind Boys' show at the recent Americana Music Festival awards the most "awing act" that he saw.
The sold-out Bend show should produce similar sensations of awe, especially considering the holiday-themed performance - the final stop of the Blind Boys' annual Christmas tour. Carter assures me that they will do "Silent Night," his favorite and the living legend seemed pleased when I told him that the show was already sold out.
"That'll put icing on the cake," he says.
The Blind Boys of Alabama
7:30pm Thursday, December 22. Tower Theatre, 835 NW Wall St. $35, towertheatre.org and 541-317-0700. (Check in or call the Tower on Dec. 20 as they will likely release 10-12 seats for purchase)