Byrd and White: African American Quartet Gospel Singing

Veteran Gospel singer and instrumentalist Larrice Byrd, of Nashville, has spent decades playing in churches, on the road, and in the studio. In 2009, Larrice joined the legendary Fairfield Four as the baritone singer in the group’s “third generation” lineup. Founded in Nashville in 1921, the Fairfield Four is today an institution in African American Gospel Music. Performing as an a cappella, four-part harmony ensemble, the Fairfield Four emerged within a Southern gospel quartet tradition that drew on earlier spiritual and jubilee styles, but that featured innovations of the time, including up-tempo, often syncopated arrangements, percussive bass singing, and a strong, emotional tenor melody lead. The Fairfield Four were part of a wave of such gospel groups in the 1940s and 50s that gained regional popularity on radio and via commercial recordings.

Over the past nine decades, the Fairfield Four have won multiple Grammy awards, received the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and performed on the historic soundtrack for the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? In 2015, along with current members Joseph Thompson, Levert Allison, and Bobbye Sherrell, Larrice and the Fairfield Four released Still Rockin’ My Soul, which earned the Grammy for Best Gospel Roots Album.

Despite the group’s impressive longevity and impeccable reputation, the tradition is fragile today, as few young singers are willing to study the older a cappella style of quartet harmony.

“When you look around the world, so much has been lost,” Larrice says. “We’re losing so much. It’s very important to us to keep the tradition, the old style. It’s more of the message than anything. We just love the tradition. We all just grew up with this good style of music.”

With this project, Larrice will teach apprentice Quileo White the full Fairfield Four style, including how to sing all four harmony parts, how to arrange chord structures and inversions, how to create vocal rhythm, how to blend, and when to breathe. For Quileo, a multifaceted instrumentalist and singer in many musical styles, quartet singing reconnects him to his family legacy, as his great grandfather Willie Lewis sang with the group for a time. But the project is more than that too. “Music plays a valuable role in black history in the days of slavery and the civil rights movement music was what inspired our ancestors to persevere through oppression,” Quileo says. “It has provided hope, joy, and motivation to our people as a whole.”