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