Dori Freeman, Stretching Her Music, Remains At Home In Appalachia
Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion was just getting started on a recent Friday on the border of Tennessee and Virginia. Dori Freeman, who lives less than 100 miles away in Galax, VA, stood on a stage beneath a mural of The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. Her duet partner, in one of several sets she had planned for the festival, was her dad, playing mandolin. Well-known for her understated stage presence, Freeman told the audience that her new album was being released that day as if the event was little more extraordinary than picking up her daughter from school.
If her emcee work is subdued, her singing voice sparkles in marked contrast. Dori Freeman’s alto is clear but complex. It surges with feeling and a graceful mountain warble and a tender break that marks it as country whatever she does with it. Nashville is enjoying a heyday of artists who are from Appalachia, Freeman has, over the five-plus years she’s been on the national stage, remained decidedly of Appalachia. And one of the songs she sang that day in the Blue Ridge sunshine took the matter on directly.
“I’m an Appalachian, I’m a Cripple Creek pearl/ I’m a can to ash in, for the rest of the world,” she sang, using a sharp inner rhyme to foreground a mixture of inherited pride and shame. She goes on in the song Appalachian to describe the ease with which outsiders demean or exploit her people without much thought. “I wanted to write a song about how important the region is to me and how influential it's been on me growing up, but also I wanted to be realistic and acknowledge some of the issues that exist in Appalachia because of how overlooked the area has historically been,” she says, citing mining companies that take without giving back and manufacturing firms that built communities shipping jobs overseas. “It’s just kind of been a very used up part of the U.S.”
But it’s home and she’s not moving, to Nashville or any other music Mecca. Tiny Galax, population 7,000, works for her, and indeed it is a major music city, with its famous annual Old Fiddler’s Convention (approaching its 100th year), with its Blue Ridge Music Center and its address along the Crooked Road roots music highway. She’s raising an eight-year-old daughter there with her husband, Nick Falk, an in-demand drummer (Molly Tuttle, Hiss Golden Messenger) and a teacher for the Floyd Country Store Handmade Music School. Her own father, the mandolin player, teaches music for a living too. Beneath Dori Freeman’s still surface, there’s a multi-generational story of regional culture and relevant, observational folk music.
“When you live in a small town, especially like a small working-class town where I live, you're aware of the hardships that people go through, and the struggles and workplaces and school systems and all all of those sorts of things, especially when you're raising a family there. So for me, that really influences like the type of music that I write,” Freeman told me on a recent swing through Nashville. “I just think it's important to stay grounded and aware that everyone is facing struggles that you don't know anything about.”
Not that Ten Thousand Roses, her fourth LP in five years, is a folk protest record. Anchored by the witty self-portrait “I Am” and the empowering statements of “Nobody Nothing,” it’s personal pop, featuring short punchy songs, head-bobbing riffs, soaring melodies and more beats and texture than anything she’s done before. She was hearing that shift during the pandemic lockdown, and remember there’s a drummer in her home. So she opted, mutually and agreeably, to move on from her career-establishing producer Teddy Thompson and work with husband Nick. “I wanted the drums and the percussion to be really in the forefront on this album,” she said. “So I mean, obviously he was a good choice.”
If Freeman is a bit diffident on stage, she’s extremely comfortable in the studio, something that’s been apparent since her breakout, self-titled debut in 2016. That’s the one where she wrote to Thompson out of the blue with some demos and lured him into working with her. That first project swirled together plaintive country folk with touches of 60s girl group sparkle and won over the entire critical establishment. They achieved similarly strong results with 2017’s Letters Never Read and 2019’s Every Single Star, with its languorous and lonesome “All I Ever Wanted.”
For Ten Thousand Roses, Freeman and Falk decamped to Richmond, VA where they pulled in close friends including Eli Wildman of family string band The Wildmans, rising banjo star Victor Furtado, and iconoclastic roots artist Rick Robertson to cut tracks. The beats are fat, but the vocals are clear and confident. Freeman says the song that first showed her the vision for the project was “I Am,” a cheeky declaration that we can’t know her by looking only at the surface. Opener “Get You Off Of My Mind” has an oceanic flow and fascinating sonics. One of the album’s real gems is “The Storm,” the one song Dori had lying around for a few years. After its catchy plucked motif, she delivers tough love to another woman who’s being stifled by a bad relationship. Later in the album she sings the reverby 60s throwback duet “Walk Away” with Nashville’s Logan Ledger, a pairing of two of our finest country voices that would be worthy of a full project.
Freeman is creeping back to live shows in the post pandemic world, looking more toward 2022 than this fall or winter. It is true, she told me, that as much as social singing was fundamental to her upbringing in Galax, performing isn’t her favorite thing. “I don't necessarily love the attention of being on stage, which is pretty ironic, given the nature of the job,” she said. “So that is challenging still, for me. It's gotten easier. I love the songwriting aspect. I love the singing. I mean, those are the reasons that I do it.”
And that’s the reason we have record players.