Things were fine, and even full-circle.
This was just a year ago. Singing sisters Ann, Regina, Deborah and Alfreda McCrary were on something of a roll, having released a debut album called “Our Journey.” Daughters of gospel legend/Nashville preacher Sam McCrary, the sisters had become known for their work with a bevy of respected singer-songwriters, including Buddy Miller, Patty Griffin and Mike Farris. They’d started headlining their own shows and were finally fulfilling their late father’s prayer that they would be together in life and in music.
“You grow up in the same house and sometimes you argue and fuss and you think, ‘I’ll be so glad when I can get away from here,’ ” says Ann McCrary. “But we’d come together, and it was feeling so good and normal and natural. It was the best we could have done.”
So it was fine and full-circle, and then it was all in peril.
Deborah McCrary, a self-employed, uninsured caretaker when she wasn’t on stage, suffered a debilitating stroke. She lost strength and mobility on the right side of her body, and vision in her right eye. She needed time and help, and even then there were no assurances. There was, however, a star-packed benefit show at 3rd & Lindsley, and that benefit helped pay for some relief and rehabilitation.
“Look at this,” she said, softly, to Ann one day. And then she slowly, cautiously and slightly raised her right arm.
“That’s when I knew there was hope,” Ann says. “And each day after that, she got a little better. And as sisters, we just pulled together so tight.”
As Deborah improved, the sisters’ vague plans to record together again solidified and sped up. Deborah would recover, it was decided, and each sister would write original material, and an album would come out and they would all be together in life and in music, just as Sam McCrary had prayed.
“After her stroke, Deborah began to write,” says Regina McCrary, who spent years on the road as a backing vocalist for Bob Dylan. “She got gutbucket honest, talked to God and turned it into a song.”
That song, “Hello, Jesus,” was another prayer, one that began with an admission:
“Hello, Jesus,” she wrote. “I’m the one who strayed away/ Stayed away so long/ I know I’ve done much wrong.”
The McCrary Sisters (photo: Sanford Myers/The Tennessean).
Deborah wasn’t the only sister who mined deeply experienced emotion for the album that would become “All the Way.”
Regina’s “You Can Make it Through the Night” is a ballad of empowerment, born in a time of loss and distress. Twelve years ago, Regina’s son was killed, and she wrote the first verse of “You Can Make it Through the Night” upon wondering out loud whether she would make it through a dark and wounded evening.
“I was crying, and told a friend, ‘I don’t think I’m going to be able to make it,’ ” she says. “He said, ‘All you’ve got to do is just make it through the night.’ I wrote a verse about that, and sang it over and over again, and then when we decided to do this album, I came up with three more verses. You never get over something like that, but you learn how to live with it. So each time I deal with an anniversary or a birthday, where I used to just ball up in a knot and cry, now I smile and think about wonderful things.”
All four sisters will be onstage at the preview celebration for “All the Way” on Tuesday at 3rd & Lindsley. For many audience members, that fact will seem as ordinary as the music will seem extraordinary. But for the sisters, standing and singing with each other is a joyful whirl of grace and destiny.
“To see Deborah up there moving at all, to hear her sing and to watch her laugh, that’s a miracle and a blessing,” Regina says.
The sisters are up for offering blessings as well as for receiving them. In their songs of faith and harmony, they examine life’s difficulties with an eye toward bright tomorrows.
“This is not just business,” Regina says. “This is our ministry. It’s how we give back and glorify God.”
It’s their message: Things are fine, and even full-circle.