Sisters and Brothers

Imagine growing up as a McCrary Sister, in Nashville’s first family of gospel music. When I spoke on stage in late 2010 with Ann and Regina McCrary, they made it pretty vivid.

“I remember the Fairfield Four coming to the house,” says Regina McCrary. “And they had rehearsal. We could sit in the room and listen to them as long as we were quiet. But as soon as they finished rehearsing we would all jump up there and we would mimic them. We would do exactly what they did.”

You see, their dad was Rev. Sam McCreary, one of the early members of The Fairfield Four, perhaps the most famous of all the Southern gospel groups. Their home was a crossroads for the elite of gospel music, with regular visits from folks like Mahalia Jackson and the Staple Singers and Thomas Dorsey.

“I didn’t know they were famous,” Regina said. “I just thought they were nice people. And as I got older I realized the history (and) who they really are. And that filled me with a lot pride to be part of that.”

“There were a lot of groups who were not staying in hotels,” adds sister Ann. “All of them used to come to our house and they would spend the night before it was time for them to do the show. They would break off into songs. And we just called everyone our family.”

The singing sisters have worked more apart than together over the years. Regina may have had the highest profile gigs, including a stint with Bob Dylan in the 80s. But in 2001, the ladies joined voices on an Isaac Freeman album that came out on Lost Highway. That caught the ear of artist/songwriter Buddy Miller, who invited them onto records he made for himself and others. Check out the Universal United House of Prayer CD for the most jaw-dropping and ambitious of those collaborations. And then rocker turned gospel rocker Mike Farris sought them out via Miller, and they’ve become a key part of his sound and stage presence.

At long last, the McCrarys heeded the call of fans who asked if there’d ever be a McCrary Sisters record. Ann told me about a family video of their father crying beseeching God that his musically talented daughters would make music together. So they went for it. “We took a little from everywhere we’ve been and wrapped it all up into this project,” said Ann. The project, titled Our Journey, features Ann, Regina and sisters Deborah and Alfreda. Like Rev. Sam, we’re glad this finally happened too, because more than just about anybody, the McCrarys have built the necessary bridge between Americana and the black gospel tradition that was always part of it, whether acknowledged or not. They are a dose of pure, uplifting soul, and we’re thrilled that they’ll close out our season closing show this Wednesday night.

And they’re not the only siblings on Music City Roots this week, no sir. Nash Street is a band built around sisters Hannah and Caroline Melby, singers and instrumentalists who became country/bluegrass veterans at an early age. They won the grand $100,000 prize at the 2008 Colgate Country Showdown and have opened shows for all kinds of stars. And they’ve appeared on Roots before, as part of the 1861 Project featuring songs inspired by the Civil War. But this week we’ll get to hear their original work, and with influences from Nickel Creek to Stevie Wonder, it should be interesting.

Also on the bill, Dan and Tim, The Carter Brothers. These fellers moved to Nashville in the mid 1990s and have been a steady force for quality, broad-based roots music ever since. Their new album The Road to Roosky on Compass Records shows off their skills across the board, from instrumental chops to great vocals. And the support of greats like Sam Bush and Tim O’Brien should give you a sense of their progressive but respectful vibe.

Rounding out a fun night will be the amazing multi-tasker Paul Kramer, a widely traveled sideman and scene-maker who now fronts Swing Street. It’s a vehicle for everything he ever mastered studying with mandolin legend Jethro Burns and touring with Suzy Bogguss, Pam Tillis, Gary Allen and more. I’m expecting instrumental heat and I have a feeling that they’ve got rhythm, like the song says. And besides all that, we’ll have the extra treat of seeing what happens when our good friend Stephanie Taylor fronts her own band. She’s actually our show’s attorney, so she’ll lay down the law. And the vibe she says is rooted in Irish music, a sound she’s cultivated on trips to the Emerald Isle.

It’s a celebration of the coming Spring Equinox and the end of our 2012 Winter Season. Journalistic troubadour Peter Cooper is guest hosting, so expect the wit and warmth of his songs as well. I think we’ll all feel like brothers and sisters when it’s over.

Craig H.

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