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

Nashville gospel singers the McCrary Sisters have performed with the likes of Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder and Kirk Franklin.
Courtesy of the artists
Nashville gospel singers the McCrary Sisters have performed with the likes of Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder and Kirk Franklin.

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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