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VOL. 41 | NO. 49 | Friday, December 08, 2017

‘Don’t make her Cry’: Regina McCrary’s life on the road with Dylan

Updated 1:07PM
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Regina McCrary onstage with Bob Dylan, with whom she performed during Dylan’s “Gospel Period,” which began with three albums released between 1979 and 1981. McCrary toured with Dylan through 1986.

-- Photograph Courtesy Of Regina Mccrary

Regina McCrary swears it was God’s plan when Fairfield Four gospel star the Rev. Sam McCrary first held tightly the skinny, Jewish rock star.

“My father said, ‘Mr. Bob you are about to take my daughter out on the road.’

“Bob said ‘Yes, sir.’”

The two men – the acclaimed Nashville gospel singer and St. Mark Missionary Baptist pastor and Bob Dylan, the rock star and Woody Guthrie acolyte – shook hands.

“My father pulled him in, and (while the men embraced), he said, ‘Don’t Make Her Cry.’

The men struck up a lasting friendship. “My dad just kind of fell in love with Bob. Being a minister, sometimes he’d call and talk with Bob about his opinions.”

Those private conversations covered a lot of turf, but at their heart the two men were sharing their thoughts about religion and spirituality, Regina says.

Of her own first meeting with Dylan, she just smiles.

“I didn’t know who he was. I just knew his music,” she recalls.

The two formed a lasting bond that led them to spend much of the next decade together, recording gospel-professing songs and then taking three albums-worth of those songs on the road.

“At first it was strictly off his gospel album, ‘Slow Train Coming,’ and then we did songs from ‘Saved,’ and then it got to be songs from ‘A Shot of Love,’” says Regina, relishing her memories from those days while relaxing, family members listening in, in her East Nashville home.

“In between all of that (the recording and touring during Dylan’s so-called “Gospel Period”), a lot of the songs we went into the studio to record didn’t make it on the records,” she explains.

“That’s what everybody gets to hear now.”

Regina is referring to what she calls “the treats” that are contained within the sprawling new release of an eight-CD, one-DVD collection of gospel songs, including rarities, concerts, rehearsals and alternate versions, titled “Bob Dylan – Trouble No More – The Bootleg Series Vol. 13/1979-1981.”

The set that covers Dylan’s long-ago evangelical turn as a poet, picker, prophet and preacher is coming out at just the right time, Regina says.

“You know, everything God does is about perfect timing. So, everything that is the “Trouble No More’’ CD is absolutely what God wants to be out right now.

“And the timing is absolutely perfect, because we are living in a time and a place where people need to think and study themselves. Not judge each other but take an inventory of themselves: Figure out what they can do to make themselves better, which will in time help Him to make the world better by showing more love, caring, concern, peace and hope,” explains Regina, whose voice is perhaps the most powerful, other than Dylan’s, of course, appearing throughout the boxed set.

She thrives with purpose in Dylan’s three Jesus-fueled studio albums that were recorded and released during 1979-81, enough songs to fill the musical, Christian-infused “sermons” that were the focus of Dylan’s performances during that period.

Regina, by the way, often opened those shows with a parable, some testimony and then sang gospel music with the other background singers for about 25 minutes before Dylan took the stage.

Regina, who just chuckles slightly when I ask her age, didn’t restrict herself to that three-year period in Dylan’s life.

“I sang with Bob until 1986,” she says, noting that the rock star and poet who was raised a Jew in Hibbing, Minnesota, kept her on his tours because some of those gospel songs and others conducive to harmony and backup remained in his sets up until that year.

That touring with Dylan helped Regina in growing the family business, nurturing its gospel-soaring legacy by exposing her to large and new secular, rock ’n’ roll audiences.

She finally left Dylan, because “Bob wanted to do something else. He didn’t need the background singers.”

One thing that can be said about Dylan is that he is not afraid of change, which sometimes challenges his audiences.

After all, he began his quest for stardom as a folk-singing Woody Guthrie worshiper.

He then famously turned electric (outraging many his folkie fans, many of whom probably have never forgiven him).

Then he was lured by destiny – Regina would say it was God’s will, no doubt – to Nashville where he recorded a trio of classic albums – “Blonde on Blonde,” “John Wesley Harding” and “Nashville Skyline” – using Nashville musicians and studios. Parts of his follow-up album, “Self Portrait,” also were recorded in Nashville.

Classic Nashville Cats – sidemen like Kenny Buttrey on drums, Pete Drake on pedal-steel guitar, Charlie Daniels on guitar and Charlie McCoy on just about any instrument imaginable – accompanied Dylan on these albums that pretty much opened the gates to bring rock artists to record in Nashville.

After all, Dylan was among the world’s biggest rock stars at that point. If Nashville was good enough for him, it was good enough for Neil Young, The Byrds, Ringo, Paul McCartney, Leonard Cohen, Linda Ronstadt and others who recorded here during that time.

It was a rock revelation and revolution that thrives to this day with Nashville-based rockers like Jack White and the Kings of Leon.

It wasn’t until 1979 that Dylan recorded the first of the three gospel albums and threw himself into the role of rock ’n ’roll evangelist, once again alienating many fans. But when you put those albums and songs on display in a single set – “Trouble No More” – it becomes a compelling chronicle of three years in his life.

And that Christian-immersion is what Regina says made it OK for the late Fairfield Four singer and pastor – her dad, Sam – to encourage her after she auditioned for Dylan before a 1979 show at Municipal Auditorium.

“My dad was OK, because when I got with Bob Dylan he had become a born-again Christian,” she adds.

Regina remembers her first meeting with the rock legend in detail.

“Bob was coming into Nashville to do a show, and a friend of mine (God-sister Carol Dennis) was singing with him,” she recalls.

“He had gotten rid of one of his background singers,” so Carol put in a good word for Regina. Dylan bit and invited Regina to audition.

“I went to where he was staying in that hotel across from the old Post Office. It’s had a lot of names over the years and I can’t remember what it was called then.

“I took my son and a pianist, and we went to the hotel. I did three songs. First one was ‘Everything Must Change.’”

Dylan sat there quietly, studying Regina as she then went into “Precious Lord.”

His interest perked up some. But the deal was sealed when Regina went into “Amazing Grace.”

“Bob jumped up and said ‘That’s what I want’ and asked me to sing it again.’’

This time her God-sister began harmonizing with her.

“That’s it. That’s what I want,’’’ she recalls Dylan’s excitement. “That’s the sound I want.”

She made her debut that same night with Dylan’s gospel show at the auditorium.

She laughs when asked what her father, the beloved preacher and gospel-harmonizing tenor, thought of that performance as he watched from the wings.

What her dad thought was not defined in words.

Instead the dad and the rock legend shook hands, leading to the embrace mentioned at the top of this story.

It probably ought to be noted that the words Sam said to Bob – “Don’t Make Her Cry” – inspired Dylan and Regina to come together this year and write a song by that title.

“It hasn’t been recorded yet,” Regina says.

Regina and Dylan remain close friends, she adds, although she won’t – out of loyalty – elaborate on details of that friendship.

“Bob Dylan – Trouble No More – The Bootleg Series Vol. 13/1979-1981,” is a newly released eight-CD, one-DVD collection of gospel songs, including rarities, concerts, rehearsals and alternate versions.

-- Submitted

She adds they also wrote “Give Him My All” that Regina sang with her sisters, Ann, Deborah and Alfreda, The McCrary Sisters, when they recorded the first of their four albums in 2010.

Those sisters, by the way, will perform their ninth “McCrary Kind of Christmas” on December 8. Top artists like Buddy Miller and Danny Flowers, as well as “the whole McCrary clan,” will accompany the sisters in this fund-raising effort.

“All the money that is raised will go to charities,” including St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Regina says. The rest will go to help “make Christmas” for some local families.

“We have picked four families and will split that money four ways, so they can put food in their houses, buy coats and shoes to take care of their feet and a few little toys for each child.”

Tickets to 7 p.m. show, which will be staged in Lipscomb University’s Shamblin Theater, are $10.

If you like what you hear, the sisters have four albums, including the newest: “McCrary Sisters Live,” which was recorded this summer at Nashville’s 3rd & Lindsley nightclub and performance venue.

Our conversation about the McCrary Sisters and their charitable Christian attitude leads her into talking about another Dylan song, “Blowin’ in the Wind,’’ that also was on the sisters’ debut album in 2010.

The sisters have performed it a few times when doing guest spots with Dylan over the years.

Before singing it, though, Regina asked for permission from Dylan to record the song with her sisters.

“I thought it was a great honor to take a song he wrote when he wrote it. I remember singing that song when I was in elementary school. I remember what was going on then with the fighting and the killing and the wars.

“I allowed him to listen to it before we put it on the CD. We used his words but we had our own arrangement,” which Dylan liked.

Reflecting on that Dylan classic leads Regina to talk more about the fondness and love shared by Dylan and the McCrary family.

“My mom (Mamie) was crazy about him. When he came to our house to eat, the rest of us all gathered in the dining room. She took him into the kitchen with her and fed him. She told him he needed to put on some weight.”

The menu that night, as far as Regina can recall, was turkey drumsticks, green beans, rice, a salad and more.

Dylan ate at least one more time with the McCrarys, when the family gathered at Regina’s sister Ann’s house.

The talk about food leads Regina to mention that she and her sisters have a cookbook out. “McCrary Sisters Cooking with Love,” that includes mother Mamie’s recipes as well as those of the rest of the family. “We did that in honor of our mother. And some of the meals I just told you about her feeding Bob are in that book.”

She glows when talking about how God led her into the long friendship with the music icon and reluctant Nobel Prize-winner.

“It wasn’t what we saw in him. It was about him being led by God and God took me to where I needed to be,” she says. That place was onstage with Dylan, proclaiming the gospel in Christian songs sung for a secular crowd.

“If God placed me there, then I was where I wanted to be. I came into the picture willing to give everything, and Bob was talking about loving Jesus, talking about being a believer. God always placed me where I needed to be.”

And the recorded portrait of where she was then is captured in the CDs and on the DVD from her days of offering up gospel flavorings to the work of perhaps America’s greatest artist of any stripe.

Again, she says this release is “perfectly timed by God.”

“On those songs, I had the honor of sharing the stage with Bob Dylan and singing about trust and peace and forgiveness and serving somebody. Might be the Devil and might be the Lord,” she adds, borrowing that last phrase from Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” Christian rouser.

She says again that the timing is just right for this dip into the archives that will reach “a lot of people that were not born or were just little babies when we did this recording.”

She’s got no doubt what she would say to anyone reading this and perhaps pondering purchase of this historic set.

“Well, what I’d really love to say is that it is amazing to me how after all those years, God has brought all these songs back to the front, and now there’s two new generations that can witness and hear this music.

“Because the songs are blessed and honest. The songs Bob Dylan wrote are true and sincere. And, when he wrote every lyric, he meant it then and he means it now.”

Regina takes a long breath.

That skinny Jewish kid from Hibbing, Minnesota, has massive impact on all forms of popular music, often venturing into side-trips, like the recent “Sinatra-inspired” recordings from the Great American Songbook.

Still Regina is sure of one thing about the man who hired her all those years ago to join his gospel band.

“Bob Dylan walked with God back then. And he walks with God now.”

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