For many music fans, the Fairfield Four is the overalls-clad African-American gospel group featured on the otherwise bluegrass- and old-time-dominated soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? The group's stripped-back, a cappella rendering of the traditional song "Lonesome Valley" stood out even on an album brimming with masterful performances. Legendary bass singer Isaac Freeman says O Brother put the Fairfield Four in touch with a new generation of fans eager for enduring musical experiences.
"I would say after we did the O Brother soundtrack thing, there were a lot of young people that came out to hear us sing," Freeman says. "They came out to see what it was like in the ‘40s and ‘50s. They've never heard it before and they're elated over it. They look at us surprised and say, ‘I can't see how you guys been doing it for so many years.' It's a great experience."
For the Fairfield Four, O Brother was just one high point in an exceptionally storied career. First organized in 1921 in the basement of Nashville's Fairfield Baptist Church, the group eventually rose to national fame in 1942 after landing a spot on WLAC, a 50,000-watt CBS affiliate. By the late '40s, the Fairfield Four had formed its most successful lineup: Freeman, the Rev. Sam McCrary, James Hill, Edward Thomas, Preston York, and Willie Frank Lewis. (The "four" indicates that there are four distinct parts in the quartet style, not necessarily four singers.) As musical tastes changed in the coming decades, many of the core members splintered off to work on other projects and the group officially dissolved in the late '60s.
In 1980 McCrary, Freeman, and Hill reformed the ensemble along with new members W. L. Richardson, Wilson Waters, and Robert Hamlett. This second coming of the Fairfield Four quickly caught the attention of high-profile music-industry stars who were attracted to the group's antiquated gospel style. They eventually toured with Lyle Lovett and recorded with Amy Grant, Charlie Daniels, and Elvis Costello, among many others.
Freeman attributes the group's longevity to a strict adherence to their original unembellished sound, even in the face of modern musical trends. "Everybody's on the contemporary beat now," he says. "That's the way they like it. Me, myself, I always sang a cappella. We try to stick to the original stuff. We haven't changed much. Doing it the same identical way. Real traditional."
When hearing the Fairfield Four, it's tempting to make a comparison between the quartet style and an idealized religious sociology: Each voice is distinctive and capable, yet when combined, they form a cohesive and elevated whole. This old-time technique might seem gritty, lowdown, even primitive. But listen closer, pick apart the voices, put them back together, and you can appreciate the clarity, the economy, the facility of the Fairfield sound. (Find "Dig a Little Deeper" on YouTube.) In the infectious jump-style quartet sound the voices construct a complex rhythmic field, ascendant in its craft and elegance.
Freeman, as the group's official musical director, is less romantic. "We go into rehearsal, we sit down, and [we] get songs together. Get everybody lined up, all the voices together. Put it all together and see what you can make out of it. It's just ordinary gospel singing. We call it hand-clapping, foot-stomping, old-fashioned gospel."
While the past decade has brought continued adulation, the Fairfield Four have recently fallen on harder times. Many of the group's bedrock members have died: McCrary in 1989, Richardson in 1992, Hill in 2000, and Waters in 2005. But Freeman, who turns 80 in June, keeps the group going. "We lost a couple of guys in the last few years and had to kind of get the group back together," he says. "I can feel the weight of managing the group."
Freeman has recruited several new singers and is once again touring. The most recent roster includes Joseph Rice, Edward Hall, Joseph Thompson, as well as Hamlett and Freeman. Ultimately, Freeman considers, when he'll stop making music isn't up to him: "You've got to stay determined to just stay with it. There will come a time when I don't feel like going. We've just decided to stay together and keep on until the good Lord says, ‘Well done.'"