Spotlight Album

Under the Skin, Into the Heart

The McCrary Sisters: on All the Way, showing spiritual backbone, unwavering grace and great big hearts. (from left: Ann, Regina and Deborah McCrary, and Alfreda McCrary Lee; photo: Brian Blauser/Mountain Stage)
The McCrary Sisters: on All the Way, showing spiritual backbone, unwavering grace and great big hearts. (from left: Ann, Regina and Deborah McCrary, and Alfreda McCrary Lee; photo: Brian Blauser/Mountain Stage)



The McCrary Sisters

McCrary Sisters Productions


When it comes to the McCrary Sisters, old school does not mean old fashioned. The horn-infused, southern soul and funk arrangements on the Nashville-born and -based siblings’ fine new album, All the Way, may evoke the ‘60s and ‘70s glory days of those genres’ classic eras, but gospel is at the root of it all. The result is music is real and truthful in a way, say, Daft Punk’s never will be. Given too that some of the original testimonials on All the Way are born of cataclysmic personal events, it’s hard to imagine the sisters’ moving messages framed in any other style than those heard here. Their gathered voices, well supported by a tight, supple band and exquisite arrangements that are big when they need to be and restrained when the occasion demands a quieter approach, reveal nothing so much as women with spiritual backbone, unwavering grace, and great big hearts.

And what messages! For starters, the McCrarys were to the gospel manor born as the offspring of the late Rev. Samuel McCrary, one of the original Fairfield Four members, who not only wrote his name large in gospel history with the Four, but regularly entertained in his home guests on the order of Rev. James Cleveland and Shirley Caesar, and dispensed the Word to the flock at his church every Sabbath day. The Rev.’s influence permeated the young McCrarys’ formative years, and though they have distinguished themselves in the secular world–collectively and individually performing and recording with the likes of Bob Dylan (with whom Regina toured for six years), Dr. John, Elvis, Isaac Hayes, Johnny Cash, Wynonna, in addition to three of them (Regina, Ann and Alfreda) performing in musical theater–their every uttered breath carries the power of gospel truth with it, no matter the song. They honor this legacy overtly on All the Way, and pretty much establish the album’s theme (even though it comes five songs into the disc) in the low thunder of Regina’s brooding, rumbling “Hum and Moan” (its foreboding aspect fleshed out immediately at the start thanks to Colin Linden’s jittery, moaning dobro setting the scene), which begins: “My daddy used to tell me/when it comes time to pray/the devil would sneak up behind you/listen to what you had to say/but my momma always told me/sure as you’re born/if you want to make the devil mad/just hum and moan.

The McCrary Sisters, offspring of Fairfield Four founding member Rev. Samuel McCrary, deliver an a cappella medley of Fairfield Four classics. Captured on video at the Station Inn in Nashville, March 20, 2011.

The McCrary Sisters on Music City Roots, from the Loveless Café in Nashville, March 6, 2013, perform ‘Train’ from their new album, All the Way

All the Way must make the devil plenty mad, because it celebrates life, the undaunted spirit and keeping the faith through troubled times, delightfully so in the slinky, horn-driven groove of “Let It Go,” Deborah McCrary’s soaring confessions of putting fate in God’s hands and getting on with the important matters, in a driving, roaring, stomping arrangement (the rhythmic pulse is intense, breathtaking) keyed by Rob McNeilly’s slithering lead guitar, pulsating horns, Kevin McKendree’s rousing piano (McKendree also produced and arranged this and three other tracks on All the Way) and the sisters’ heated call-and-response dialogue. Tenderly but but no less uplifting, the blessed assurance of Regina’s pop-soul ballad, “You Can Make It” is chicken soup for the soul. With its silky synth backdrop, churchy piano, rock guitar flourishes and powerhouse drumming–along with an appealing change in texture in a softer, mostly piano-and-vocal-driven bridge–the song could be a show stopping Broadway musical number, and the lead vocal certainly gives it the appropriate earnest conviction of latter-day stage musicals; but what might be kitschy in another vocalist’s reading is moving and real here because of the backstory informing the singer’s sentiments. Deborah, you see, had no sooner joined with her sisters in celebrating the acclaim greeting the McCrary’s 2010 debut, Our Journey, than was she felled by a stroke, robbed, in the blink of an eye, of strength and mobility on her right side and vision in her right eye. A star-studded benefit helped defray the uninsured singer’s medical expenses and covered some rehab, but only time would determine her future in music. Then one day she awoke to find she could raise her right arm, and hope bloomed anew. As she improved, she began to write. “She got gutbucket honest, talked to God and turned it into a song,” Regina told The Tennessean’s Peter Cooper in a March 22 interview ahead of the new album’s release. At that point, All the Way started taking shape. So when, near the end of “You Can Make It,” she sings, with increasing urgency, “You can make it through the night/walk with God, you’ll walk in the light/but there’s no secret what God can do/what he’s done for me”–and here, swooshing out of the arrangement (and out of her sly reference to Stuart Hamblen’s great hymn, “It Is No Secret”), comes the sisters’ grateful sigh–“he’ll do for you,” followed by the chant of “you can make it, you can make it…,” why, it’s so sincere you don’t need to know the backstory to say “Amen!” to that. Thus transformed, the song becomes a whole other experience than it might have been had the message not been paramount to the setting.

The McCrary Sisters join songwriter Gary Nicholson on his Grammy nominated song ‘Skin Deep,’ originally recorded by Buddy Guy as the title song of his Grammy-nominated 2008 album. The song is featured on the McCrarys’ new album, All the Way. Nicholson’s co-writer, Tom Hambridge, is on drums here. Kevin McKendree and Steve Mackey, who respectively handle keyboard and bass duties on All the Way, are doing the same for Nicholson here.

Lest anyone get the wrong idea, All the Way, though filled with uplifting messages of tolerance, fellowship and self-affirmation, is less a pure gospel album than one informed by gospel at every turn. One of the disc’s showcase numbers is a stirring, reflective, Memphis-style take on “Skin Deep,” the Grammy nominated title track from Buddy Guy’s extraordinary 2008 album. Written by the redoubtable team of Gary Nicholson and Tom Hambridge, “Skin Deep” is a profoundly moving plea for racial tolerance and living by the Golden Rule, on the theory that “underneath we’re all the same.” The silky groove, surging horns and emotionally charged vocals–not only by the sisters but, speaking for the male of the species, Allen McCrary in a bravura reading of subtle power and potency–move both the body and the spirit, culminating in a rousing crescendo of house wrecking spirituality as the song powers to its finish. Though couched in a classic soul arrangement, “Skin Deep” is as fresh as a song could be, by dint of its message and delivery. The sizzling southern rock thrust–fueled by Rob McNeilly’s scalding slide–of “Right Where You Are” (by Bonnie Bishop and Jimmy Wallace) is a celebratory treatise counseling savoring each moment in its own time because “life’s too short to be worried,” complete with Aretha-like upper register shouts and a gospel call-and-response between the sisters worthy of the best Mass choirs, a raucous workout that will have you embracing the philosophy herein with a vengeance. Regina’s “The Ways of the World,” an optimistic vision of a future free of today’s destructive, intolerant behaviors, struts its text out in a lively arrangement redolent with Philly soul flourishes in De Marco Johnson’s synth and the funky guitars courtesy Akil Thompson and producer Tommy Sims, with the McCrarys imparting the word with a blend of Three Degrees sultriness and Aretha-like testifying. It’s finger popping time when we get to the album’s Ann McCrary-penned title track, the final statement from the McCrary collective this time out. Couched in a deep, sensual, midtempo groove, enhanced with the soothing violins of Zach Casebolt and Charles Dixon, Ann and her sisters engaged in nearly six minutes of affirmative espousals of triumph over whatever adversities life throws at them, certain that “God’s got my back,” a conviction they assert in their intense call-and-response “Yeah”s that summon the spirit of Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls spurring each other in “Bring It On Home to Me.” History comes alive in All the Way, but far more important are the uplifting testimonies and witnessing the McCary Sisters share. It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it, this album does, but in the end the spiritual sustenance it offers enlarges the meaning of every note the sisters sing. It really gets under your skin, and into your heart.

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