Gospel has always been the family way for Ann McCrary.
Whether she was performing with her esteemed father — the Rev. Samuel McCrary, one of the original members of the ground-breaking Fairfield Four — at age 3 or singing with her sisters today alongside some noteworthy friends on a new album called Our Journey, gospel has been at the very heart of her music, her career and her life.
But label her strictly as a gospel artist, and McCrary will happily explain the full stylistic extent — and intent — of her music.
"We're not just a one-style-of-music group," McCrary said, referring to The McCrary Sisters, the singing quartet of herself and siblings Regina, Deborah and Alfreda.
"We've sung so many different kinds of music, and we love all of it. So it's hard for us to say, 'Let's just sing completely gospel,' because that's not who we are. We might want a blues sound or an Americana sound. We just do the music that makes us feel good, although we want to take our music as far as it will go."
So far, the McCrarys, at least individually, have taken their music a considerable distance.
In addition to performing with Elvis Presley and Stevie Wonder, sister Regina toured and recorded with Bob Dylan during his fabled "born again" era, a period that included 1979's extraordinary album Slow Train Coming.
The McCrary Sisters emphasize that collaboration at the onset of Our Journey by transforming Dylan's folk anthem, Blowin' in the Wind, into a sleek, harmony-rich spiritual.
"I've always loved that song," Ann McCrary said. "I can remember, through school and singing organizations, singing that song all the time. So when Blowin' in the Wind was mentioned for us to do, ... well, of course, everybody was on the same page. But we had to put our own little flavor in there. And that was just fine.
"When Bob Dylan came to town (to the McCrarys' home base of Nashville), Regina took the CD to him so he could hear our version. And he said, 'Now that's got some dirt on it.'"
Among the sisters' newer pals is Americana guitarist, songwriter and producer Buddy Miller. Ann and Regina were featured on Miller's spiritually inclined 2004 album, Universal United House of Prayer. That led to work on Miller's recent The Majestic Silver Strings, where Ann wails over a blues-saturated guitar groove designed by Miller and Bill Frisell on a cover of Mickey and Sylvia's No Good Lover.
The Miller connection led to work on Patty Griffin's 2010 Miller-produced Downtown Church. Miller and Griffin returned the favor by contributing to Our Journey. Miller adds guitar to sister Alfreda's soulful singing on Broken Pieces (a song, originally titled Broken Things, written by Buddy's wife, Julie Miller). Griffin, along with Mike Farris, provide vocal support for the Ann McCrary original Know My Name.
"Buddy is one of the sweetest people I have ever come across," Ann McCrary said. "He is a humble, humble man who is so easy to work with. It was a thrill for us to be able to sing with Buddy. Patty is another terrific person to work with. She is just awesome.
"We're just really blessed to have all of these good people in our lives — and that includes Delbert (McClinton, the blues-soul veteran who also contributes to Our Journey) and Mike. It was so wonderful to have them all come in and be part of this recording."
With such champion musical allies in their corner, the McCrarys' dream of expanding their fan base and stylistic repertoire while remaining true to their gospel roots is already being realized.
"We want more than one group of people to enjoy this project," McCrary said. "We want people to find something that they love about this music we're doing. So many projects and recordings center on one style and one sound. That just limits everything.
"We have been on all sides of this industry. We've been on the country side. We've been on the Americana side. We've been on the blues side and, of course, the gospel side. And we love all of it. So the music we've put together on this project, ... it's a work of love."