Nashville’s McCrary Sisters Still Hone Harmony Around Their Childhood Dinner Table

Each week, The MCrary Sisters – Alfreda, Ann, Deborah and Regina – still gather at the modest family bungalow to join their voices around the well-loved, wooden dining room table of their youth.

“See, it’s wobbly and everything,” says Ann, who’s currently living here. “This is the same table. We have tried everything to clean the stuff off these seats. I thought, ‘If these seats could talk…’”

Inherited Harmony

There was a time when they’d be lured into the kitchen by the sounds and smells of their mom humming over crackling skillets of chicken and cornbread. Then they’d cram into the living room while their dad, the Reverend Sam McCrary, worked through a capella hymns with his celebrated gospel group the Fairfield Four. The grown men would pat their thighs to keep time on the velvety, flower print sofa that still occupies the same spot today.

“We used to watch them,” says Regina, “and they would just go [slapping her thigh rhythmically.] And that’s what you would hear. They didn’t have no instruments other than their God-gifted voices. Yeah, it was wonderful.”

The Fairfield Four. Image courtesy The McCrary Sisters

The Fairfield Four. Image courtesy The McCrary Sisters

The Fairfield Four won fans far and wide with their morning radio show on Nashville station WLAC. But nobody caught their spark like the four McCrary girls, who would launch a dynamic quartet of their own down the line.

As kids, they sang with their four brothers on a makeshift basement stage—complete with bed sheet curtains—in the choir at St. Mark’s Baptist, where their dad served as minister, and in the city-wide, ecumenical BCM Mass Choir. [Here’s a young Regina singing an extremely impressive solo with the latter group.

But after starting their own families, the sisters scattered to the four winds for a time. Ann briefly followed a husband to a military base in Italy. Deborah went to nursing school, and wound up working in pediatrics Nashville General Hospital. Regina hit the road with the likes Stevie Wonder and Bob Dylan.

“When I got with [Bob],” explains Regina, “was when he had pronounced to the world that he was a born-again Christian. …He became real close with my father, and my father would council with him. I didn’t find this out until Bob Dylan told me himself, how he would call my dad and my dad would call him, and they would talk.”

Over the years, Regina, Ann and Freda each did their share of sessions with current stars of gospel, like Yolanda Adams, Donnie McClurkin, BeBe and CeCe Winans and Bobby Jones, along with household names in country and pop, like Hank Williams Jr. and Michael McDonald.

Fairfield Four’s O Brother Casting Opens A Door

Though their father passed in 1989, his musical legacy helped reunite them a decade later, when his beloved Fairfield Four were cast as severely solemn, overalls-clad gravediggers in the Coen Brothers movie O Brother, Where Art Thou and its blockbuster, rootsy soundtrack:

With that exposure, longtime bass singer, Isaac Freeman, got to make a solo album, and he wasn’t going to settle for just any old backing vocalists.

Says Regina, “I remember Isaac saying, ‘I didn’t want nobody else singing my background but them McCrary girls.’ That was his way of showing respect for daddy. That was his way of showing respect for what he believed in, as far as the gifts that God had not only given daddy but had showed favor on all eight of dad’s kids and gave it to us.”

Word of their gifted bloodline spread in the Americana scene, and musicians like Buddy Miller and Mike Farris began booking Ann, Regina and Freda to handle harmonies, billing them, for the first very time, as “The McCrary Sisters.”

To truly be able to live up to that name, they had to convince Deborah,  the shy one, who’d spent a big chunk of time away from music, to sing with them again. Together, they’ve graced the stages of the Ryman Auditorium, where they were a highlight of this year’s Americana Music Awards, Delbert McClinton’s Sandy Beaches Cruise and the Americanarama festival, alongside Regina’s former boss. It’s worth noting that the McCrarys were the only musical guests Dylan invited on stage that night.

The McCrary Sisters on tour in Scotland in 2012. Image courtesy of The McCrary Sisters

The McCrary Sisters on tour in Scotland in 2012. Image courtesy of The McCrary Sisters

Their Own Musical Territory

To date, the sisters have released a pair of albums, 2010’s Our Journey and this year’s All the Way, that spotlight each of their singing and songwriting, and the sum of those parts: a singular blend of styles and sensibilities absorbed between the kitchen, the choir loft, the club stage and the studio vocal booth.

Freda describes their repertoire as a combination of “all the different music we sung in our lifetime, from contemporary to traditional, the country, the R&B, everything. We wanted—and I think I can say it for [all of us]—we wanted to write and sing music for everybody, not just one particular group. …For the young, the old, the black, the white—everybody. They may not know what genre to put us in. But if we can be able to bless everybody doing that, then I’m happy.”

You certainly won’t find many other acts that regularly treat Americana audiences to originals that conjure a down-home, pre-electric quartet feel, dip a toe into country-blues, ride funky, sleek disco grooves and apply hip-hop attitude to gospel themes, all with equal conviction, and all within the same set.

“Through our lives,” Ann reflects, “we have been through a lot of things, and at times, different styles of songs, I know for me, have brought me through. Not just gospel songs, but different kinds. …We have been able to bring all of that together. And this is the music that we love. And the one thing about being able to sing the music you love, you don’t get tired of singing it.”

The McCrarys test some of the more modern styles they love on their children and grandchildren, who show quite a bit of musical promise themselves. At last year’s family Christmas show, three generations shared the spotlight.

“You don’t find that in all families, where everybody sings,” says Ann. “But when you find a family where everybody sings, that’s purpose. That means there’s a reason, there’s a purpose for that talent to be there. And it’s not there so people can just sit down on it.”

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