The McCrary Sisters' Gospel Journey
By Larry Nager
With eight kids to feed, and making everything from scratch, Mamie McCrary didn’t have time to negotiate supper. So to anything her picky eaters might refuse—pinto beans, black-eyed peas, lima beans—she added a spoonful or two of sugar. Almost fifty years later, whenever her four daughters sit down to eat, sugar bowls come out, adding some sweetness to lives that have seen more than enough hard times.
The sisters—Ann, Regina, Alfreda, and Deborah—continue an even sweeter McCrary tradition, blending their voices in the sanctified harmony that’s their birthright as daughters of Rev. Sam McCrary, one of the key members of Nashville gospel greats the Fairfield Four. They’ve brought a glimpse of heaven to recordings by Buddy Miller, Patty Griffin, Allison Moorer, Mike Farris, and other Americana artists. Today they’re recording and touring internationally as the McCrary Sisters, co-writing traditional-sounding material with some of Nashville’s best, including Gary Nicholson and Danny Flowers.
Nashville has been a gospel capital since the early 20th century. The tradition spans the state, from the mountain gospel immortalized during the 1927 Bristol Sessions in East Tennessee (which introduced Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family) clear to Memphis, home to two of gospel’s greatest composers, Rev. W. Herbert Brewster and Lucie E. Campbell. The touring Fisk Jubilee Singers have supported Fisk University in Nashville since 1871. And in the 1930s, a young Samuel McCrary joined the Fairfield Four, which went on to lead modern gospel, breaking new ground in recordings and radio appearances and lending their timeless sound to the Academy Award-winning O Brother, Where Art Thou? in 2000.
By the time the sisters were born, Rev. McCrary was the pastor of St. Mark’s Missionary Baptist in Nashville’s Germantown, but music was still a priority. He booked and promoted local shows and continued to tour with the Fairfield Four. His daughters regularly gave up their bedrooms to gospel’s biggest names.
“Pops Staples and the Staple Singers, James Cleveland, Shirley Caesar,” Regina says, remembering McCrary houseguests. “Most gospel acts didn’t stay in hotels, they just stayed in people’s houses. And because Daddy did most of the booking, and most of them were coming to his church, a lot of them stayed here.” We’re sitting around the kitchen table of her parents’ home, a modest single-level south of downtown that’s jointly owned by all eight McCrary siblings and, in keeping with their father’s will, can never be sold.
Growing up around all that music, Ann, the eldest McCrary daughter, can’t remember not singing. “It was just unnatural not to sing,” she tells me. “All the children sang. It was strange for me to hear someone who could not sing. I thought there was something wrong with them.” Ann was first to perform onstage, and gospel music literally saved her life. “I started singing when I was two years old,” she says. “Back in the day, before most people had televisions, we had a black-and-white TV in the basement, and in order to watch it, it had to be dark, so we put blankets over the door. My uncle’s stepson was about seventeen or eighteen years old, and he would go down and watch TV. One particular day he asked me to come down, and he molested me, and he kept doing it. I was two and a half, almost three. I remember his smell. He’d been drinking. My uncle made moonshine and I think he’d get into the moonshine. He would always say, ‘I’m gonna tell your mama that you been doing something bad.’ And that terrified me. So I never told anyone.” Instead she noticed that her cousin only came over when her father left to perform, so she’d cry whenever she saw him pack. “One day, I screamed and screamed and screamed. My mom got my clothes, threw ’em in a suitcase, and said, ‘Take her with you.’”
It was the mid-1950s and gospel quartets were at their peak. The Fairfield Four played big package shows and Ann remembers being mentored by gospel stars. “Bessie Griffin taught me ‘Since I Met Jesus’ and told me to go onstage during the show and tell my dad I wanted to ‘shang.’ I did and he thought it was really cute, and the audience thought it was cute, and he gave me the mic and I sang. People started throwing money on the stage.” The promoter had skipped with the group’s pay, so the money from the fans helped them get home. Rev. McCrary took Ann with them from then on. “They’d stand me on boxes. I was learning from everybody. Sometimes, when I came off the stage, some of the female performers would take me aside and say, Now honey, when you sing this note you need to do this, and when you sing that note, you need to do that. I traveled and sang with him until I had to start in kindergarten.”
Not all memories of touring with her father are happy. “I remember stopping to get something to eat and having to go around back to order food. He would get pulled over and have to talk to the police and they would say anything they wanted to him and he would say, ‘Yes sir, yes sir.’ I was with him, so he had to be really careful, ’cause he wanted to protect me. He would just lower his head and take it, no matter what they said. When they left he would be so humiliated, but he had no other choice.”
Their father divided his time between church duties and the Fairfield Four, helping recruit new members like the great bass vocalist Isaac Freeman. The McCrary sisters grew up in the church, and they still tell stories about the characters they met there, like Carrie Lee “Big Tussie” Jackson, a woman built like an NFL linebacker who would fight anyone, anytime.
“Everybody was scared of Big Tussie,” says Regina. “We used to laugh because we’d be in a church service and you’d hear this paper rattling and everybody would turn around and they’d see Big Tussie with baloney and saltine crackers. Daddy wouldn’t let anybody say anything to her, but if anybody did, she’d growl, ‘What you lookin’ at?’”
The sisters also recall Big Tussie beating several Nashville police officers after she refused to get out of her car when they pulled her over at a traffic stop. They maced her and dragged her out, which really set her off. Rev. McCrary intervened, bailing her out of jail and getting her children back from social services. A wrestling promoter who had seen the news report recruited her for the circuit, and she moved out of Tennessee and into a career where her rage paid off.
Big Tussie was among the more than 3,000 mourners at Rev. McCrary’s funeral, in 1991. “She gave my mama an envelope and she said, ‘I been trying to pay Rev. McCrary back all these years, but he wouldn’t take it. Don’t open it until you get home,’” Ann recalls. “And when she got home, there was $10,000.”
Mamie McCrary was a big wrestling fan herself. When the McCrary kids were young, she took them to Thursday night matches at The Hippodrome on Nashville’s West End Avenue. There, she was known for bullying the bad guys. “One night, when the good midgets came out headed to the ring, everybody was cheering and clapping, and so was my mama. But when the bad, mean midgets came out, my mama was booing and heckling and saying all kinds of things. She was laying it on thick, and she had people all around her cracking up and laughing, I mean busting out. And the midgets noticed her.
“After the bad midgets lost, the good midgets came out first and everybody was cheering and celebrating. When the bad midgets got up off the mat and were walking up the aisle, my mama’s seats were right on the aisle, up in the bleachers, and the things my mama said got them so angry that they looked at her and said, ‘We’re gonna get you.’ They started climbing the bleachers toward her, and she just kept saying what she needed to say. She did not back off. And when they got to her, she pulled out her razor, which she used to tote, and said, ‘Now what did you say?’ They backed right up off of her.”
Regina, around seven at the time, was terrified, but she knew her mother would protect her. “She was a strong woman,” Regina says with pride. “She fed the whole neighborhood and she’d bring in homeless people. She’d pray with you and she’d cry with you. But she’d tell you in a minute, ‘Honey, Jesus called Rev. McCrary to be the preacher. He didn’t call me to be the preacher.’ She used to say to us, ‘Y’all better pray for me, because what will come up will come out.’”
Rev. McCrary’s biggest dream was for his children to form a group. With four boys and four girls, he had two quartets under his roof, and the McCrary family often sang at area churches. Ann knew early on that singing was her life’s passion. She sang everywhere—in church, in small singing groups, and in touring choirs like the BC&M Mass Choir, with Deborah and Regina. The choir toured and recorded, lending their harmonies to albums like Ray Stevens’s Everything is Beautiful. Ann even earned a Grammy nomination for her version of “My Sweet Lord” with BC&M.
At nineteen, however, she got married, and her husband, who was in the Air Force, made her quit singing and move away from her family, first to Texas, then Italy. Ann felt her life was over. “Singing is an escape, and I couldn’t do it. I was just cut completely off from everything I knew and loved—from my family, from the church, from singing. I had a nervous breakdown.”
After she and her husband and their two sons, Charles Ray and Calvin Duane, returned to Nashville in 1974, Ann made up her mind. “I started singing in my father’s church, and it caused so many complications in the marriage, but I just had to sing. There is just absolutely no other way I can survive.” By thirty, she was divorced with three kids (her daughter, Tammy, was born in 1976).
Meanwhile Regina had gotten pregnant at sixteen by her brother’s best friend. Her music dreams, like Ann’s, seemed finished. But a couple years later, childhood friend Carolyn Dennis encouraged her to audition for Stevie Wonder. Regina worked with him for about six months, and soon after the gig ended, in December 1978, Carolyn called again. “She said, ‘I’m out here with Bob Dylan and he just fired a background singer and he’s looking to hire another one and I told him about you. Are you interested?’” She aced the audition, but before she could take the job Rev. McCrary had to meet her new boss. She took her parents backstage to meet Bob after a concert in Nashville.
“My dad went up to Bob Dylan and said, ‘So, you’re gonna take my baby girl out on the road with you?’ And Bob Dylan said, ‘Yes, sir.’ And my dad said, ‘Make her happy. Don’t make her cry.’ And Dylan said, ‘Yeah, I promise.’
“Then my mama looked at him and said, ‘I got to ask you one question: What the hell are you singing? I couldn’t understand one word that was coming out of your mouth.’ He laughed so hard. That was my mama.”
Regina played a major role in Dylan’s recordings and concerts over the next eight years, opening shows with the Queens of Rhythm, Dylan’s backup singers, and dueting with Dylan on “Mary of the Wild Moor” and other songs. She performed on Saturday Night Live, for the Grammy Awards, and on Dylan’s gospel trilogy, Slow Train Coming, Shot of Love, and Saved. When they returned to Nashville, Regina’s parents invited Dylan over for Sunday dinner. Having “the voice of a generation” in her home didn’t faze Mamie McCrary in the slightest. “She told him, ‘Bring your little ass in this kitchen. You’re skinny, need to put some weight on you.’ He started laughing, and she said to his bodyguard, ‘You, you’re off duty. Don’t need no bodyguard up in my house.’ My mama took Bob in the kitchen and she fixed him a big old platter—smoked turkey, rice, green beans, sweet potatoes, macaroni and cheese. He ate everything she put on the plate, and she sent a big old plate with him when he left.”
In 1986 Dylan ended his gospel phase and broke up his band. Regina found herself back in Nashville, a single mom with no job. Depressed and with a taste for cocaine picked up during her touring days, she went through enough money in eighteen months to pay cash for two houses. She kicked the habit on her son Tony’s twelfth birthday and became a drug counselor and minister. Tony had his own struggles with drugs, though Regina believes he was clean in 2000, when he was shot to death at age twenty-one. Six months later, Tyler Perry called and asked Regina to join his touring comedy, Diary of a Mad Black Woman. “He saved my life. I didn’t know what to do after Tony died. But that’s how I started recovering. The laughter was healing for me.”
About ten years ago, as Ann and Regina started to get more session work, they recruited their sister Alfreda. In 2007, they began working with Mike Farris and his Roseland Rhythm Revue, adding their soulful harmonies to a rocking rhythm section, a full horn section, and Farris’s vocals. Their chemistry was explosive—Regina rocked her tambourine and played off Farris the way she had with Dylan, and the sisters laughed and teased, the old sibling rivalry setting off vocal fireworks. You can hear it all on Farris’s Shout! Live (2009). It wasn’t long before the three were headlining shows as the McCrary Sisters. Eventually Deborah joined the group and they started recreating Fairfield Four classics while expanding on their own material. They recorded their album, Our Journey, in 2010, and released a second album, All the Way, last April.
Deborah suffered a mild stroke in 2012, but was back onstage in less than six months, and today her voice is stronger than ever. Alfreda still drives a school bus, and Regina does odd jobs to pay the bills, but their successes keep building. The four are happy to be back together, fulfilling Rev. McCrary’s dream. Regina cooks in her mama’s huge old pot for family occasions, and come Christmas Day, sisters, brothers, cousins, children, and grandchildren fill the McCrary porch and sing for the neighborhood. They’ve seen enough of life to know it’s sweetest when the family is together, singing. Delays and detours aside, the McCrary Sisters are right where they want to be. “I was always happy singing, and I didn’t have to be famous to do that,” Ann says. “I think a lot of the time what the industry does is it comes in and robs you of the joy of your gift. It makes you think you have to be famous. But singing still fulfills my life. It relieves me. And whatever else happens, so be it.”
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