The Fairfield Four, a vocal quartet that has existed for almost a century, presently includes Levert Allison (tenor), Larrice Byrd, Sr. (baritone), Bobbye Sherrell (tenor) and Joe Thompson (bass). The quartet has been dedicated to performing traditional gospel music in the traditional “a cappella” manner since its founding in 1921. Jerry Zolten, who penned the liner notes, characterizes the a cappella singing style of the Fairfield Four as “intertwined voices rhythmically pulsating in harmony, anchored by a deep bass, lead vocal over the top” and “rooted in that hazy past before the era of recorded sound.” This history is recounted in the PledgeMusic video promo for the album.
The traditional bent of the Fairfield Four is easily understandable when one recalls that the ensemble originated within Nashville’s Fairfield Baptist Church. Their prominence was heightened by the role played by their songs. For example, Zolten explicitly indicates that their “voices were heard on the soundtrack that inspired and propelled the Civil Rights Movement,” including the song “Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around” (track 9). The Fairfield Four therefore see themselves as bearers and custodians of a tradition. Larrice Byrd, Sr. comments, “We all grew up listening to this style of music and we understand it. We want to keep the tradition alive forever.”
The Fairfield Four’s new album, Still Rockin’ My Soul, is their first release in almost 20 years. Concerning the musical selections, Zolten affirms that “the songs collected here are all part and parcel of the traditional Fairfield Four canon.” The opening track, “Rock My Soul,” is accompanied only by hand clapping and foot tapping, while on the spiritual “Children Go Where I Send Thee” country music singer Lee Ann Womack joins Joe Thompson on lead vocals. In “I Love the Lord (He Heard My Cry)” and the reprise which closes the album, one hears the organ accompanying a melodic chanting characteristic of the African American devotional line-out hymn. Additional tracks include “Come on in this House,” “Baptism of Jesus,” “Jesus Gave Me Water” (by Lucie E. Campbell), “My Rock,” “I Got Jesus and That’s Enough” (by Dorothy Love Coates), “Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around,” and “Highway to Heaven” (by Thomas A. Dorsey).
In sum, if one accepts the fact – and this, with good reason – that the human voice is the best of musical instruments, then the Fairfield Four exemplifies this in a most convincing way on Still Rockin’ My Soul. Gospel music historian Bil Carpenter has mentioned the instrument-like timbre of the Fairfield Four quartet, noting that “when the Fairfield Four sang, they utilized the full extent of their voices, moving easily from deep, rolling basslines to the staccato upper peaks of the tenor range, all executed with precise, intricate harmonies and ever-shifting leads.” Call it instrumental vocality, or vocal instrumentality, if you like!
In 1925, when the Fairfield Four organized in Nashville, Tennessee, quartet singing was done a cappella. No instruments, just the human voice. And God saw that it was good. No–great.
Over the years, quartets added to the mix an ever-expanding combo of guitar, piano, organ, drums, electric bass, and synthesizer until the music threatened to overpower the vocal harmonies. Whether or not you are a fan of quartet singing with music, we can agree that there’s something seriously magical about hearing a cappella vocal singing. The Fairfield Four has satiated this appetite in the twenty-first century with their new album, Still Rockin’ My Soul.
Comprised of Levert Allison, Larrice Byrd Sr., Bobbye Sherrell, and Joe Thompson, the Fairfield Four delivers a handful of gospels and spirituals, such as “Baptism of Jesus,” “My Rock,” “Jesus Gave Me Water,” and “Highway to Heaven.” Allison even incorporates Sam McCrary’s audience-pleasing vocal glissando on “Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around.”
All but one track is done a cappella, with handclapping and Thompson’s bass voice providing the rhythm. The sole instrument is an organ drone that supports the men who, like church deacons on Sunday morning, lift up the long meter standard, “I Love the Lord, He Heard My Cry.” Another surprise is when country star Lee Ann Womack joins the quartet for a joyous rendition of the Christmas spiritual, “Children Go Where I Send Thee.”
While the original members of the group are long deceased, the new members capture the vocal color that once made the Fairfield Four one of the nation’s most popular gospel quartets. Thompson, in particular, shows effective tutelage from listening to the Fairfield Four’s iconic bass, Isaac “Dickie” Freeman.
The liner notes, penned by Jerry Zolten, not only provide a brief history of the Fairfield Four, but also reveal the current members’ interesting connections to the original members. Incidentally, if a biography is to be written about the group, Zolten is the guy to do it. He had a hand in introducing the Fairfield Four to a wider audience in the 1980s. Thereafter, the reconstituted quartet went on to garner Grammy awards and made an appearance in the Coen Brothers film, O Brother Where Art Thou.
Still Rockin’ My Soul was completed with financial help from a successful crowdfunding campaign. It’s a sad commentary that a group with this much talent has to resort to crowdfunding, while pop artists who can only sing with the benefit of Autotune get major label attention. Nevertheless, I am glad the campaign was successful because this album is a solid reminder of the transformative power of human voices blended in harmony.
Written by Stephen L. Betts , Rolling Stone Country
Watch the video here.
Lee Ann Womack's two-night stint at Nashville's City Winery in late February was postponed by an atypical Music City snow and ice storm, but thanks to Mother Nature, when the shows did go on last week fans got one extra night and some incredible special guests taking the stage with the acclaimed country vocalist.
In addition to guest appearances from Womack's two daughters, her longtime pal, songwriter-musician Buddy Miller, and guitarist-producer Richard Bennett, who has collaborated with her on a limited-edition vinyl release for Record Store Day on April 18th, the singer performed a pair of songs with world-renowned a cappella gospel group the Fairfield Four. In its review of the third night's 90-minute show, the Tennessean noted that their "stunning version" of "Children Go Where I Send Thee," had the crowd on its feet. The group also joined Womack for her iconic crossover hit, "I Hope You Dance," which the singer hailed as the "the best version of the song you've ever heard."
The Fairfield Four are famed not only for their blend of gospel harmonies but also for their unique stage outfits, which blend formal tuxes with denim overalls. The group, first formed in Nashville in 1921, recorded "Children Go Where I Send Thee" with Womack for their latest album, Still Rockin' My Soul, which was released last month. She was also on hand when they recorded a live version of the spiritual for the new PBS special, Rock My Soul: A Gospel Celebration, at Nashville's historic Downtown Presbyterian Church.
The PBS special is airing on various stations as part of their current pledge drive. Check local listings and www.pbs.org for more information.
Twenty-four years after his death, the Rev. Samuel McCrary's legacy still looms large in Music City.
As the pastor of St. Mark Baptist Church in Germantown, he ministered to hundreds of Nashvillians over the years. As an integral member of local a cappella gospel institution The Fairfield Four, his tenor touched countless listeners. The Fairfield Four and his four daughters, The McCrary Sisters, continue to carry on his musical influence.
"Sam was the anchor of the Fairfield Four," says Joe Thompson, the group's current leader and bass singer. His cousin Rufus Carrethers was one of the Four's original members when the group was founded during the early 1920s at Fairfield Baptist Church.
A 22-year-old McCrary joined the a cappella group in 1935, and, during the post-World War II years, assumed leadership of the Fairfield Four as they recorded dozens of sides for Dot Records, Bullet, Nashboro and other labels. Those records would go on to influence doo-wop acts of the 1950s such as The Clovers.
When a cappella gospel music declined in popularity and McCrary was called to the ministry, the Fairfield Four went on hiatus for about 20 years before reuniting in the '80s. In the years since, they have been named National Heritage Fellows, appeared in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and sung with Elvis Costello, Steve Earle, John Fogerty and more.
Though the group's founding members have all passed away, the current lineup — Thompson, Levert Allison, Bobbye Sherrell and Larrice Byrd — is determined to keep the Fairfield Four tradition alive.
They released a new album, "Still Rockin' My Soul," that pays homage to the group's strong roots (and their Nashville ties, as country singer Lee Ann Womack accompanies them on the soulful "Children Go Where I Send Thee").
"Our style is rare and we refuse to let it die away," Allison says. "I think it's our obligation to carry it on."
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That's a sentiment familiar to the McCrary Sisters — Ann, Regina, Deborah and Alfreda — who have followed their father's path since childhood.
"As kids, we thought everybody had the ability to sing," remembers Ann McCrary because everybody they knew did sing. All eight McCrary children sang in the church on Sunday mornings. During the evening, they'd listen to the Fairfield Four practice in the living room of the family's Acklen Avenue home and emulate the harmonies they heard.
The education they received from the Rev. McCrary wasn't just musical, though.
"My dad asked us to bring him some clothes to donate to children in need," Regina McCrary says. "So I brought some things down and said, 'Daddy, you can have these because I don't like them no more.' He looked at me and said, 'When you give, you give from the heart. You give something that's hard to let go of, or it's not giving.' That was a lesson, and now that's how we live and how we treat each other."
Over the years, the McCrarys have sung in every studio and style that Nashville has to offer.
At 3 years old, Ann McCrary, the oldest daughter, began traveling with the Fairfield Four; she hasn't stopped singing since.
Regina McCrary also pursued a career in music and performed with Bob Dylan in the late 1970s and early '80s when he recorded three gospel albums: "Slow Train Coming," "Saved" and "Shot of Love." (The troubadour, she says, appreciated her "butt-naked honesty.")
Alfreda McCrary, the baby of the group, mainly focused on the music ministry she did with her husband, but soon began singing with Regina and Ann. They'd go on to accompany Mike Farris during his live performances, and after the shows, Regina McCrary says, numerous audience members would come up to the McCrarys and ask whether the trio had recorded an album of their own. That's when they got the idea to form their own group, but first, they needed to persuade one more woman to join them.
Bridging two eras
Deborah McCrary had devoted herself to a career in nursing, and when her three sisters asked her to perform with them, she admits to being initially hesitant. Her nerves were only compounded when she joined her sisters onstage at the Station Inn and suffered her first hot flash.
"It felt like everybody was staring at me, and I swore I'd never get back up there again," she says, as her sisters dissolve into laughter. "But it was so much fun to be with my sisters, and after that it didn't take much (convincing) at all."
Six years after that Station Inn show, the quartet has guested on numerous recordings by Paul Thorn, Mary Gauthier and Dr. John, to name a few.
They've also just released their third album together, "Let's Go." Working with longtime friend and collaborator Buddy Miller, the McCrarys considered 50 songs for the project before slowly narrowing it down to the final 16 tracks on the finished product, which is a vibrant and joyful tribute to their father.
"Most of what you hear on the CD are songs we grew up listening to," Regina McCrary says. "We heard them in church and we heard the Fairfield Four sing them. When we listened to them again, those songs brought back such sweet memories that stirred our spirits, which is why we picked them for this album."
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On "Let's Go," The Fairfield Four join the McCrarys on an uplifting a cappella rendition of "Don't Let Nobody Turn You Around," a song that Sam McCrary recorded with the Four more than half a century ago. The newest version of the song isn't just a salute to the groups' shared past, but a hint at an exciting future.
"I see us as a bridge between old school and new school (gospel)," Regina McCrary says. "You've got to understand where the music has been to know where to take it."
On July 10, the Fairfield Four, who'll likely be clad in their favorite "Tennessee Tuxedos" — the crisp white dress shirts, bowties and denim overalls that the group is sporting on the back cover of their latest album — and McCrary Sisters will bring a "Rock My Soul" concert to the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. But first the two groups will celebrate Easter Sunday at the Ryman Auditorium as part of the "Sam's Place: Music for the Spirit" concert series alongside Charles Esten, Colony House, Jason Crabb and Francesca Battistelli.
"We're going to get up, have a good time and talk about God's love, joy and mercy," Regina McCrary says. "Hopefully, we can bring peace and happiness to somebody's life."
Reach Juli Thanki at 615-259-8091 and on Twitter @JuliThanki.