For all of its critical and commercial success, the math didn't always add up in the Fairfield Four.
When the Rev. J.R. Carrethers formed the a capella gospel group in 1921 with his two sons among the membership, the lineup was a quartet — hence the ensemble's name. But photos from throughout its storied history, from versions led by the Rev. Samuel McCrary in the 1940s and '50s to the Grammy-winning roster featuring Isaac Freeman and Willie "Preacher" Richardson on the multi-platinum 2000 soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, reveal the head count within the group grew to five and sometimes six singers.
Yet the name never changed. For 93 years, the touring gospel that flowed from Fairfield Baptist Church in Nashville has been credited to the same troupe, regardless of the number of enlistees. It has always been the Fairfield Four.
This weekend, with its first Lexington appearance in over a decade at hand, the group is finally a quartet again. That meant its current lineup — Joe Thompson, Levert Allison, Larrice Byrd, Sr. and Bobbye Sherrell — had to relearn a few very old traditions.
"Well, they started out with four, which is how they got the Fairfield Four," says bass vocalist Thompson, 79. "It was from the church that all these guys belonged to. Then some started dropping out and they added more. Then Sam McCrary came in. He's the one that really kept the Fairfield Four going. At first he was my pastor. He baptized me.
"Now we have to learn how to sing with four people all over again. Most of the group got kind of lazy when they added that fifth person. It made it much easier on everybody. But I remember when the group got hooked up with a barbershop quartet. I would listen to it and go, 'Man, these guys are doing the same thing we're doing.' The chords and everything were the same. We just slide into them a different way. So now we're learning how to sing all over again in that barbershop style.
"Of course, it may be a barbershop style. But what we're doing is a big ol' gospel thing."
Thompson, a cousin to original Fairfield Four members Harold and Rufus Carrethers, began singing with the group on a fill-in basis during the 1950s.
"They used to come get me out of high school to make trips when one was sick or something happened in someone's family," he says. "They would call my mom and ask her if I could go with them. They would have me sing whatever voices they needed."
For pop and Americana audiences, recognition of the Fairfield Four came much later. John Fogerty enlisted the group for his Blue Moon Swamp album in 1997. That same year, Elvis Costello collaborated on Fairfield's Grammy-winning I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray. And once the O Brother soundtrack became a sensation, the singers found themselves on the road as part of an all-star tour with the likes of Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris and Ralph Stanley that opened at Rupp Arena in January 2002.
But the full force of the Fairfield Four comes when you hear its four (or five) voices singing on their own. A fine example: the roar of the traditional hymn Hallelujah on the 2001 concert album Wreckin' the House, where the only accompaniment to the members' booming harmonies are their fervent handclaps.
"I look at these guys when we're practicing and you can just see the excitement on their faces when we learn something new in the arrangements we try to put on these old, old songs," Thompson says. "I just wish you could see the smiles. It's a lovely thing in my eyesight."