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Abingdon to celebrate Easter with gospel concert

staff report • Mar 24, 2013 at 5:23 AM

The Fairfield Four and Mike Farris and his Roseland Rhythm Review will headline “An Easter Gospel Celebration,” being staged by the Town of Abingdon at 8 p.m., March 30 on Barter Theatre’s main stage. Doors open at 7:15 p.m.

Tickets are $38.

Among the most distinguished proponents of traditional African American a cappella gospel, the Fairfield Four was organized in 1921 by the Rev. J.R. Carrethers, assistant pastor of Fairfield Baptist Church in Nashville. The group, initially a trio made up of the minister’s two sons — baritone Harold and bass Rufus — and tenor lead John Battle, evolved into a quartet with the addition of a second lead, Lattimer Green, later replaced by Samuel McCrary.

The quartet sang a cappella, performing traditional spirituals such as “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel” and “Dry Bones,” arranged and taught to them by the Rev. Carrethers.

Their a cappella style was drawn from the Birmingham, Ala., quartet tradition exemplified by recording groups such as the Bessemer Sunset Four, the Birmingham Jubilee Singers and the Famous Blue Jay Singers with lead vocalist, Silas Steele. That tradition is characterized by a percussive bass voice anchoring middle harmonies sung often on repeated rhythmic syllables (“boom a lanka lanka lanka”) and a tenor voice out front carrying the lead.

The Fairfield Four were among pioneers of African American gospel groups that used radio to reach broader audiences. In 1942, they won a contest sponsored by the Colonial Coffee Company — the “prize,” their own morning show over 50,000-watt WLAC out of Nashville. Within a few years, under the sponsorship of Sunway Vitamins, the group’s broadcasts were syndicated to major cities across the United States and they began billing themselves as the “Southland’s Famous Fairfield Four.”

Radio led to making records and, beginning in 1946, the Fairfield Four released sides on the Bullet, Dot, Delta and M-G-M labels as well as other smaller labels. Extending themselves through the far reach of media, the Fairfield Four would influence both sacred and secular vocalists across the land, among them blues singer B.B. King.

“Before I left my hometown of Indianola, Mississippi, the Fairfield Four used to come on the radio every morning real early before we went to work,” King said. “I became a great fan and, in fact, (Sam) McCrary had a lot of influence on my singing over the years, and that’s the truth.”

In the mid-1940s, the Fairfield Four underwent several personnel changes. The Carrethers brothers departed, and McCrary assembled a new lineup with baritone James Hill, lead tenor Edward “Preacher” Thomas, utility singer Willie Frank Lewis and Isaac “Dickie” Freeman, who became one of the most important bass vocalists in the genre.

“This group,” wrote gospel scholar Doug Seroff, “was invincible in ‘Battles of Song’ with the premier gospel groups in the nation.”

The Fairfield Four had a successful run, but ceased touring in 1950. Hill and Freeman formed a new group, the Skylarks, before retiring completely from professional singing, and McCrary became a church pastor, continuing to perform locally as the Fairfield Four with a revolving lineup of singers.

In 1980, the Fairfield Four reunited to perform at a celebration of pioneering Birmingham quartets. Over the ensuing two decades, the Fairfield Four reached audiences across cultures; worldwide, their tours, recordings and nationally televised appearances with Lyle Lovett, Elvis Costello and John Fogerty earned them a broad fan base even larger than in their heyday “golden age” years.

Today, the Fairfield Four are best known from their appearance on the soundtrack and on screen in the Coen Brothers’ 2000 film “O Brother Where Art Thou.” They are multiple Grammy winners, with albums including “Standing in the Safety Zone” (1992) and “I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray” (1997) on Warner Brothers; “Wreckin’ the House” (1998) on Dead Reckoning; “The Fairfield Four and Friends Live from Mountain Stage” (2000) on Blue Plate; and by their bass singer Isaac Freeman with the Bluebloods, “Beautiful Stars” (2003) on Lost Highway.

Their awards and honors include the National Endowment for the Arts, National Heritage Award, 1989; Tennessee Lifetime Achievement Award, 1994; Nashville Music Award Lifetime Achievement Award, 1995; James Cleveland Stellar Award, 1996; Grammy Award, Best Traditional Gospel Recording, for “I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray,” 1997; Gospel Music Hall of Fame, inducted, 1999.

Joining the Fairfield Four for the Easter show is Mike Farris and the Roseland Rhythm Review.

Farris was the founder and lead singer of the Nashville-based group the Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies, but has been a solo act since 2001. He has put out two studio releases — one live record as Mike Farris and the Roseland Rhythm Revue as well as a charity EP as Mike Farris and the Cumberland Saints.

His music is diverse but tends to be rooted in early American gospel and blues. In June of 2007, Farris released his critically acclaimed “Salvation in Lights,” which married old-time roots gospel sounds with his own unique arrangements that were mainly inspired by New Orleans, sax and the blues. The music was both spiritual and personal for Farris, as it dealt with individual struggle, but it also had a commonality that music fans from all walks of life could enjoy.

In 2008, he won the Americana Music Association’s “New & Emerging Artist of the Year” award and started to make a name for himself as a dynamic performer.

In 2008 and 2009, Farris and his Roseland Rhythm Revue performed monthly residencies — “Sunday Night Shout!” — at Nashville’s Station Inn. The official live recording of the Station Inn shows, “Shout! Live,” was released in 2009 and won the Gospel Music Association’s Dove Award for “Best Traditional Gospel Album of the Year” in 2010.

When the “1,000 year flood” hit Middle Tennessee in May of 2010, it became obvious to Farris that he needed to do something to help those who were affected. He gathered up some of the finest musicians in town, including Sam Bush, Ketch Secor and Gill Landry (Old Crow Medicine Show), Kenny Vaughan (Marty Stuart), Byron House (Robert Plant) and members of his Roseland Rhythm Revue, and recorded six songs in six hours at Nashville’s Downtown Presbyterian Church. The music was a blend of old-time country, gospel and blues, with Farris leading the “Cumberland Saints” from the pulpit.

In October of that year, the EP was released as “The Night the Cumberland Came Alive,” with partial proceeds donated to the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee.

Recording on his next studio release is nearly complete.

The Easter show is produced by Bone Fire Brands Inc. and is presented by the Abingdon Convention and Visitors Bureau as part of the Abingdon Music Experience, a town initiative dedicated to bringing a wide variety of music performed by the best national and regional artists.

Tickets can be purchased by calling the Barter box office at (276) 628-3991 or online at www.bartertheatre.com.

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