Jimmy Carter gets teased a lot for his name. And though he has a soft, southern drawl like former President Carter, he has a totally different kind of talent.
"Oh yes, people love to give me a bad time about my name being the same as a former president," he said in a telephone interview with the Herald. "But I don't mind."
Carter is a member of the Grammy-winning group The Blind Boys of Alabama, which will be one of the headlining acts at this year's Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival. The event is Feb. 22-25 at the University of Idaho in Moscow.
Blind since birth, Carter has been singing with the group since 1939, when he attended the Alabama Institute for the Negro Deaf and Blind in Talladega, Ala.
"We used to call ourselves the Happy Land Jubilee Singers," he said. "It wasn't until we hit the road professionally in 1944 that we started calling ourselves the Blind Boys of Alabama."
Carter is the patriarch of the group and the last surviving original member. During most of the past 70 years, the members have all been blind, but this year's tour includes three in the group who are not, Carter said.
"All my life, I have loved gospel music," he said. "I was raised around it. And as I was born blind, I was also born to sing."
Carter doesn't let his age interfere with that love of music, either. He's as passionate about singing his beloved gospel tunes as he is about his faith. But that doesn't mean he doesn't have a sense of humor, especially when it comes to his age.
"I look upon my age much like Jack Benny always did," he said.
He explains that when his birthday comes up next month, he will be celebrating his 39th birthday for the 41st time. "I'll let you do the math," he joked.
The Blind Boys of Alabama have earned a bundle of awards during the past six decades, including six Grammys and the lifetime achievement honors from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Grammy Association. The group has also been profiled on 60 Minutes, was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, and performed at the White House a few times.
The group's most recent album, Take the High Road, is a collaboration that includes familiar voices like Vince Gill, Willie Nelson, Oak Ridge Boys, Hank Williams Jr. and Lee Ann Womack.
"When we bring people into our projects, we look for those who have some soul in their singing," Carter said. "All these folks bring soul. That's why the album sounds so good. That's what it's all about."
This will be the Blind Boys' first appearance at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, and they're looking forward to it, Carter said.
"I never had the pleasure of meeting Lionel Hampton, but I'm honored to perform at this festival named after him," he said.
Carter never married; he tours 150 to 200 days a year.
"Sometimes I do miss the human touch," he said. "But music helps fill the void."
And gospel is what stirs this octogenarian crooner's soul. Though some critics tried to label his group's music as a mix of gospel, jazz and blues, Carter disputes those claims.
"We do not deviate from gospel," he said. The group's Grammy awards reflect that, earning the top prize for best traditional soul gospel album four consecutive years from 2002-05. And in 2009, they won the Grammy for their gospel album, Down in New Orleans and received the Lifetime Achievement Award.
"It has been a good life, despite being robbed of sight," Carter said.
But there was a time many years ago when he wasn't so sure.
"I kept asking God when I was a kid why I had to be blind," he said. "But in retrospect, I believe God always has a plan, and his plan for me was to sing. And I would never have been a part of the Blind Boys of Alabama if I hadn't been blind.
"So you see, life really is good."
*Dori O'Neal: 582-1514; firstname.lastname@example.org