On 'McCrary Sisters: Live,' The Spotlight Turns Toward Gospel's Go-To Backup Singers

Aug 10, 2017
Originally published on August 10, 2017 7:48 am

Nashville gospel singers the McCrary Sisters know how to make a 500-strong crowd feel like they've been personally invited to the party.

It's not surprising, given the sisters' decades of experience performing, separately and together, with the likes of Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder and Kirk Franklin, among others. You can hear the vibrant spirit of the group's live performances – and hints of the sisters' different personalities – on McCrary Sisters: Live, which comes out Friday.

But to really understand where the warmth of the group's performances comes from, it helps to start in the sisters' family home. With its carved wood and velvety upholstery, the McCrarys' living room still contains the furniture their mother picked out decades ago. It has lasted because she kept it covered in plastic, except when guests came over – and some of the most frequent guests were members of their father's a cappella gospel group, the Fairfield Four.

The sisters heard their father, Rev. Sam McCrary, lead countless rehearsals. Deborah McCrary says they were allowed to be in the room on the condition that they sit, watch and be quiet. "But we would take it all in," she says. "As soon as they'd get up and leave, we'd get up and do what they did." Mimicking the adults when they were children shaped the way they harmonize today.

When their father invited other legendary gospel performers to sing at his Missionary Baptist church, he'd also provide them a place to stay. "During that time, they wasn't allowing black people to stay in hotels," explains Regina McCrary. "So that's when, most of the time, they'd come to town and have to stay at somebody's house." That was how the sisters got to know James Cleveland, Shirley Caesar, Dorothy Love Coates and The Staple Singers.

With eight kids in the family — Regina, Ann, Deborah, Alfreda and their brothers — it was a full house. They all sang: at home, at church and in various groups with each other. And they all started young — Regina was only six years old when she did her first studio work. As teenagers, some of the sisters sang behind Elvis Presley, Ray Stevens and Isaac Hayes.

But marriages and children soon took them in different directions: Regina spent years singing with Bob Dylan; Ann and Alfreda did contemporary gospel studio work; Deborah became a nurse.

But starting in the 2000s, Ann, Regina and Alfreda got more and more requests to lend their soulful harmonies to recordings by Americana artists like Buddy Miller, Patty Griffin and The Mavericks. For the first time, the sisters were seen as a singing unit, and they decided to do their own shows and albums. They lured Deborah back to complete their lineup.

Each of the sisters writes songs reflecting her musical taste, from smooth keyboard ballads to Prince-style R&B. Producer Tommy Sims recognizes that the McCrarys are introducing a sound that spans styles and eras to an audience who may only know them for their past work.

"People who have seen them with the Bob Dylans of the world and at the Americana festivals and shows [are] now seeing the McCrarys in all this other stuff that they do, which is really what they do," Sims says. "It's just it's not necessarily what they do when they're guns for hire."

And what they do now relies on the blending of their four distinct voices — like a cake and its ingredients, Alfreda McCrary says. "Everything is important, all of us," she says. "Like the flour, the egg, the water, the icing. So everybody has a part, everybody plays a part."

That's a recipe that the McCrary sisters have spent a lifetime refining, and now their listeners get to have that cake — and eat it too.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

For years, Nashville's McCrary Sisters were the group to call for gospely backup vocals. They sang with the likes of Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder and Yolanda Adams. Tomorrow, they'll release a live album of their own. Jewly Hight of member station WPLN has this profile.

JEWLY HIGHT, BYLINE: Ann McCrary and her three younger sisters know how to make a crowd of 500 feel like personally invited guests.

ANN MCRARY: It's good to be here. You all having a good time?

(APPLAUSE)

ANN MCRARY: Well, you know, those young girls over there at the mic? Those are our children.

(APPLAUSE)

HIGHT: But understanding where the warmth of their performances comes from requires actually being a guest in their family home.

ANN MCRARY: Hi. JJ. How you doing?

HIGHT: I'm good, how are you?

ANN MCRARY: I'm good. I'm good.

HIGHT: The living room still contains the furniture their mother picked out decades ago, with its carved wood and velvety upholstery. It's lasted because she kept it covered in plastic, except when guests came over. Some of the most frequent were members of their father's a cappella gospel group, The Fairfield Four.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T LET NOBODY TURN YOU AROUND/STANDING IN THE SAFETY ZONE")

THE FAIRFIELD FOUR: (Singing) Don't you let nobody turn you around. Don't you let nobody turn you around. Don't you let nobody turn you around. Keep on...

HIGHT: The sisters heard their father, the Reverend Sam McCrary, lead countless rehearsals. Deborah McCrary says, they were allowed to be in the room on one condition.

DEBORAH MCCRARY: We sit and watch and be quiet, but we would take it all in. As soon as they get up and leave, we'd get up and do what they did.

HIGHT: Mimicking the adults shape the way they harmonize today.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T YOU LET NOBODY TURN YOU 'ROUND")

THE MCCRARY SISTERS: (Singing) Don't you let nobody turn you around. Don't you let nobody turn you around. Don't you let nobody turn you around. You better keep on together.

HIGHT: When their dad invited other legendary gospel performers to sing at his missionary Baptist church, he'd also provide them a place to stay. The sisters got to know James Cleveland, Shirley Caesar, Dorothy Love Coates and The Staples Singers because, says Regina McCrary...

REGINA MCCRARY: During that time, they weren't allowing black people to stay in hotels. So that's when most of the time they'd come to town and have to stay at somebody's house. So we had a lot of people here spending the night.

HIGHT: With eight kids in the family - Regina, Ann, Deborah, Alfreda and their brothers - it was already a full house. And they all sang at home, at church and in various groups with each other. Regina was only 6 years old when she did her first studio work. As teenagers, some of the sisters sang behind Elvis, Ray Stevens and Isaac Hayes. But marriages and children soon took them in different directions. Regina spent years singing with Bob Dylan. Ann and Alfreda did contemporary gospel studio work. Deborah became a nurse. Beginning in the 2000s, Ann, Regina and Alfreda got more and more requests to lend their soulful blend to recordings by such Americana artists as Buddy Miller, Patty Griffin and The Mavericks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "(CALL ME) WHEN YOU GET TO HEAVEN")

THE MAVERICKS: (Singing) Try and carry on this way. Call me when you get to Heaven. Won't you call me when you get to Heaven?

HIGHT: For the first time, the sisters were seen as a singing unit, and they decided to do their own shows and albums. They lured Debra back to complete their line-up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET IT GO")

THE MCCRARY SISTERS: (Singing) Oh, Lord, I've got to let it go. Let it go. Let it go. Let it go. Let it go. My hair. Let it go. My mind. Let it go. Come on. Put your hands together.

HIGHT: Each of the sisters writes songs reflecting their musical tastes, from smooth keyboard ballads to Prince-style R&B.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOULDN'T THROW STONES")

THE MCCRARY SISTERS: (Singing) It's really one for living on the street, telling everybody what you feel and what you sick. Pointing your fingers, telling people they living wrong. But people ain't glass houses, shouldn't throw stones.

HIGHT: Producer Tommy Sims recognizes that the McCrarys are introducing a sound that spans styles and eras to an audience that may only know them for their rootsy gigs.

TOMMY SIMS: People who have seen them with the Bob Dylans of the world and at the Americana festivals now are seeing the McCrarys and all this other stuff that they do. Which is really what they do. It's just not necessarily what they do when they're guns for hire.

HIGHT: And Alfreda McCrary says, what they do on their own relies on blending four distinct voices.

ALFREDA MCCRARY: I'd say we're like a cake with the ingredients. Everything is important, like the flour, the egg, the water, the icing. So with all of us, you know, everybody has a part. Everybody plays a part.

HIGHT: The McCrary Sisters have spent a lifetime refining their shared recipe. For NPR News in Nashville, I'm Jewly Hight.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRAIN")

THE MCCRARY SISTERS: (Singing) Lord, help me please... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.