East Tennessee State University alumna Becky Buller is not only the first artist to win in both instrumental and vocal categories at the International Bluegrass Music Awards, and the first female to win Fiddle Player of the Year, but Buller is also “one of the hottest bluegrass artists and fiddle players out there” and “a pillar in the modern day bluegrass community . . . helping to shape the genre as we know it,” says July’s edition of Music Mecca.
Founded in 1921, The Fairfield Four continues to shape its genre of music, as well. The three-time Grammy Award-winning a cappella gospel ensemble was named a national treasure by the National Endowment for the Arts, and in 1995, was the first to receive the Nashville Music Award for Lifetime Achievement. The Four has been “singularly important in revitalizing and preserving the oldest style of traditional African American spiritual and gospel singing,” says musicologist and producer of American roots music Jerry Zolten.
Put the Becky Buller Band and The Fairfield Four together and the result is “a unique combination of two great American art forms,” said TV host Mike Huckabee during their appearance on his show.
On Friday, Nov. 15, at 7:30 p.m. at First Baptist Church of Elizabethton, the Becky Buller Band and The Fairfield Four will meld Buller’s bluegrass/gospel roots and the Four’s legendary gospel sound in a concert.
“Folks around here really love a cappella music,” says Anita DeAngelis, director of ETSU’s Mary B. Martin School of the Arts, which is sponsoring the concert. “Combine that with award-winning bluegrass, gospel and these remarkable musicians, and it will be a night no one will ever forget.”
Buller has long been a fan of the Nashville-based Fairfield Four’s collaborations with the Nashville Bluegrass Band. With their style in her head, the two-time Grammy-winning songwriter penned “Written in the Back of the Book” for The Fairfield Four in 2017, and asked them to record it with her for her 2018 “Crêpe Paper Heart” album on the Dark Shadow label. The Fairfield Four agreed, and the CD was named No. 1 bluegrass album of 2018 by Bluegrass Today.
Buller and The Fairfield Four have sung together on “Huckabee”; at Buller’s home church in Manchester, Tennessee; and for her birthday bash at Nashville’s legendary Station Inn this past January. The Elizabethton event will be their second full show together. Each group will perform a set then join forces and voices for the finale.
“They’re real,” says Buller, who has also written gospel songs for Rhonda Vincent and the Rage and other bluegrass luminaries, as well as her own band. “They just don’t sing about it. They live it. It’s really awesome to see how God is using their music. Singing with them is like going to church. Their music is so good, and you can just really feel the Spirit moving.”
The Spirit first moved Buller to make music when she was young, the child of parents who traveled Minnesota, Iowa and South Dakota with the band Prairie Grass. Buller started on piano and took up violin/fiddle to play with her parents’ group. She began writing songs in high school and won first place in the Hank Williams Songwriting Contest in Iowa, as well as the Minnesota Junior Fiddling Championship.
Buller then traveled to ETSU for college, where she studied public relations and played with ETSU bluegrass ensembles, including the school’s Bluegrass Pride Band, while also touring with the band Appalachian Trail.
“I love Johnson City,” says Buller, who moved to Nashville after graduating. “I love being in the area. There’s so much music, and the (ETSU bluegrass) program has grown so much since I was there. It’s exciting, and everywhere we go when we’re on the road, we talk about ETSU.
“It’s a very special program and it’s a special place to be and I consider it my second hometown.”
Buller – who makes Manchester her “third” home – now tours with her own band, which includes ETSU Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies Director Dan Boner on guitar, fiddle and vocals; Ned Luberecki on banjo; Nate Lee on mandolin and vocals; and, for the Nov. 15 show, C.J. Garskof on bass.
Boner is thrilled to have Buller back at his home church and to welcome The Fairfield Four to Elizabethton and Northeast Tennessee.
“Becky performed on my live album ‘The Gospel Way,’ which was recorded at First Baptist in Elizabethton in 2007, at the same time that I was working as the church’s music director,” Boner says. “The church itself has the most perfect acoustics for bluegrass and a cappella music, and the congregation members are just like family to me. It was the obvious choice for this special collaboration.
“You simply cannot understand what it is like to sing with the Fairfield Four. It is all about strength and conviction. They sing right through you – deep into your soul. Hearing Becky’s voice soar above their rhythmic foundation is an experience not to be missed.”
The newest iteration of The Fairfield Four – Levert Allison and Bobbye Sherrell, tenors; LarrieByrd, baritone; and Joe Thompson, who started subbing with the group when he was in high school, singing bass – are determined to keep the Fairfield Four style of traditional a cappella gospel alive.
The style, while unique to the African American tradition, is simple, as are their message and mission, Byrd says. “We’ve been asked to add a whole lot of other music in our presentation but we just believe in trying to make it as simple as possible,” he says. “Plain, simple and enjoyable at the same time. We bring a positive message and, no matter what, we stand on the Word.”
On Nov. 15, the message and music will indeed be positive, encouraging and spirited. “We’re just living in some troubled times, and we desperately need fellowship and community, and we need to get together and have our lights shine bright,” Buller says. “And when we get together, we encourage one another and that’s what this evening is going to be about – encouraging each other in Christ, through bluegrass music and through African American gospel music.”
For more information about the Martin School of the Arts’ fall events or tickets, visit www.etsu.edu/martin or call 423-439-TKTS (8587). T
ickets for this event are $25 for general admission, $20 for seniors and $5 for students of all ages with an ID.