NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Friday, February 8th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. A capella music is experiencing a resurgence today. Think Pentatonix, Straight No Chaser, Take Six. But it’s been around a long time.
EICHER: As part of our Black History Month coverage, WORLD Radio’s Myrna Brown talks to a third-generation member of a gospel quartet from Nashville. They’ve been delighting audiences since the 1920’s.
MUSIC: [Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around,1947]
MYRNA BROWN, REPORTER: The year is 1921. In the basement of the Fairfield Baptist Church, two brothers and a friend start experimenting with their voices. Their names: Rufus and Harold Carrethers and John Battle.
After a few months of singing in churches around Nashville, the trio adds a fourth voice and creates an even stronger harmony. All they need now, is a name.
BYRD: And that’s when the mother of the church and the deacon of the church named them the Fairfield Four.
Ninety-eight years and three generations later, the music of the Fairfield Four continues.
BYRD: I’m the youngest one, and I’m 65 years old.
As the baby and the baritone of the group, Larrice Byrd carries the beat. He’s also working to preserve the history of the men who came before him.
BYRD: Sam McCrary, his voice is actually the one that put the Fairfield Four on the map. He had a high tenor voice and he carried the name for many years.
In the 1930’s Sam McCrary encouraged the group to enter a radio contest. They won! Besides the appearance on the radio station, they earned national exposure and acclaim.
BYRD: Our movement is so much different. In basic four-part singing, you have the baritone, the bass and the two tenors and they pretty much move in the same direction most of the time when they make changes.
Not so, for the Fairfield Four.
BYRD: We don’t just go from one to four. We go from one to six. There are intervals in the scale of music.
And that movement often challenges the tenets of traditional music.
BYRD: Because we don’t write music out like the barbershop quartet groups. Our arrangement is based on what we hear in our heads and what we feel, and we just practice until we perfect it.
In the 1950’s that flawless execution eventually succumbed to evolving tastes and expectations.
BYRD: The story is the music started changing. You know they started adding instruments, and people moved to instrumental music as opposed to a cappella music.
In 1962 the Fairfield Four stopped performing. Nearly two decades would pass before the group reunited at a concert in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1980. Still at the helm, Sam McCrary; He was the last first-generation member to introduce the Fairfield Four to new fans. That included Byrd, who at that time was a 30-year-old church musician.
BYRD: I was playing bass guitar at Sam McCrary’s church. They performed in the church, and I looked up and said, who are these old men? And they just blew me away.
MUSIC: [The Day Is Done Costello]
That traditional gospel flavor had the same effect on Warner Brothers. The record company signed them to a one-record deal. Then came a second album and collaboration with English singer, songwriter and composer, Elvis Costello. In 1997, the group won its first Grammy for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album.
MUSIC: [Lonesome Valley]
The Fairfield Four soon made its film debut in the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” And in 2001, another Grammy—this one for Album of The year, for the movie’s soundtrack.
By then, Byrd says members of the second generation—like Joe Thompson—were aging and looking for replacements.
BYRD: I was playing in a church on the other side of town and my choir did a song, and he said he and his wife were looking trying to see who was leading the song. And that’s when he called me to join the group.
That was 10 years ago. Byrd along with 83-year-old Thompson and tenors, Bobbye Sherrell and Levert Allison, are the third generation of the Fairfield Four. They’re always dressed in their trademark “Tennessee Tuxedos” blue jean overalls with tuxedo jackets.
MUSIC: [Still Rockin’ My Soul]
In 2015 their new album, “Still Rockin’ My Soul” won a Grammy – the group’s third! It was just the affirmation they needed.
BYRD: Here we are the third generation, I’ll tell you one thing, you step in a pair of big shoes, and I didn’t feel like we had made it yet.
Now, Byrd says it’s time to look and pray for the singers who will one day take their place and carry that traditional gospel sound into its next century.
BYRD: God has been in charge of this group from the very beginning. This is something He put in place. And the fact that it has lasted this long, there’s no doubt about it. God has kept this group and is still keeping it.
Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Myrna Brown.