I have fond memories of a showcase gig performed by Dori Freeman at Cannery Row during Americana Fest in 2016. Allocated a graveyard slot, directly before Rodney Crowell and his band were due to perform, the then 24-year-old came on stage accompanied only by her acoustic guitar, a lone figure in the centre of what - excluding The Ryman – must be the largest podium at the festival. Challenged by an annoyingly talkative audience, many who only paused their conversations to clap when she finished each song, she finally silenced them mid set by bravely singing Ain’t Nobody a cappella, which took some nerve. I thought ‘thumbs ups and well done to you’. I wondered just how difficult she found it to engage audiences most particularly when she’s not the headline act. "Developing good stage presence is still very much an ongoing process for me. I find talking and engaging the audience in between songs infinitely harder than just performing. Playing and singing comes naturally to me; being the focus of a large crowd does not. I have a very dry and sometimes dark sense of humour which doesn’t always easily convey on stage."
It doesn’t get any more authentic country than Freeman. Born and reared in Galax Virginia (famous for its annual fiddling convention), she is very much a home bird and follows the musical traditions of both her grandfather and father, whose Front Porch Gallery and Frame Shop forms part of the Crooked Road music trail in Virginia. Even though she was surrounded by music from childhood it was not until 2014 that she plucked up the courage to send some music to Teddy Thompson – whom she had been a huge fan of - by way of a Facebook message, that has resulted in them working together on both her self-titled album released in 2016 and its successor Letters Never Read, which followed last year. The connection with Thompson was a meeting of minds by two people from families steeped in musical traditions and I enquired of Freeman what he brought to the recordings that particularly made an impression on her. "Teddy always has a clear idea of what things should sound like and is very frank and precise in his directions and suggestions without being pushy or mean. He knows how to get a good performance out of someone which is exactly what you want in a producer. And of course, any time Teddy sings on one of my tunes I’m thrilled. Having that calibre of singer on any song elevates the recording."
Powerful and soul bearing lyrics are a feature on both albums, giving the listener the impression of a writer using her art to deal with the often-difficult realities of modern day life. Cold Waves on Letters Never Sent is a typical example of her ‘bear it all’ style lyrics. ("And in the evenin' when I lay my baby down, I listen to her breathe the single sweetest sound, I pray she'll never lose the tenderness she's found, and that she'll never know the pain to which I'm bound")."Without song writing I don’t know how I’d cope with all the very human struggles of life. It’s the easiest way for me to communicate my feelings and the process that brings me the most resolution and perspective. There is something about putting words and melodies together that brings me great relief and joy."
Her vocals and song writing are timeless, self-assured and unbelievably natural. Life’s tales and struggles beautifully yet simply articulated without any gimmickry, as if a conscious decision that the material. "Yes, on both records we wanted to keep the instrumentation and production simple to feature the vocals and lyrics. This is something Teddy and I have always agreed on and I think it’s just a good rule of thumb for any recording session."
Light-hearted material also features in her anthology, with the hilarious Ern and Zorry’s Sneakin’ Bitin’ Dog, written by her grandfather Williard Gayheart back in the day and sung unaccompanied by Freeman on the current album.The imagery generated by the lyrics are so simple yet credible as the young country lover boy navigates, after an encounter with his female flame, every pot hole, ditch and fence, skipping his way home in the black of night, only to be attacked by a neighbours ‘rascal pup’! "I’ve known the song since childhood, but only started performing it about 3 years ago. It’s a song that often gets the most attention and interest from the audience. I think people respond and connect in a deeper way to true stories, whether they are sad, dark, or in this case silly and sweet." Continuing on the nostalgic theme is the inclusion of Jim Reeves Yonder Comes A Sucker, a versionless faithful to the original, with a disciplined drum beat and vocals dominating, breathing new life into the song. "Yonder Comes A Sucker was a song I just happened to stumble upon when I was listening to some of my dad’s records at his house. My husband and I were just jamming one night in New Orleans when he still lived there and that’s (appropriately) where we came up with, the whole second-line kind of sound and beat."
The mention of her husband, fellow musician Nick Falk who plays drums and claw hammer banjo, brings to mind witnessing him play with her on stage at The City Winery in Nashville last year, a feature which presumably makesthe logistics of touring more feasible. "Performing and traveling with your spouse make things so much easier logistically and financially and just more fun. I’m so fortunate to be in that position."
Male artists combining marriage, parenting, song writing and touring is a difficult enough challenge but it must be considerably more stressful being an artist, mother and wife. I queried if she set aside dedicated periods to write and if attempting to keep all the balls in the air at once generated subject matter for material. "I just write when I can. Usually at night or when my daughter is a preschool or my husband is on the road. I’ve never been the kind of songwriter who can appoint a specific time to write. If I do that, nothing good will come. It will sound forced because it is. I just have to wait ‘til an idea comes along and then try and run with it."
Kacy (Anderson) and Clayton (Linthicum) are second cousins and a young musical duo from a rural landscape outside Saskatchewan and not unalike Freeman have been similarly recording a stripped back blend of country and folk music with both local and U.K. influences. It’s interesting that they feature on Freeman’s cover of Richard Thompson’s (Teddy’s father) I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight.The combined vocals between Freeman and Anderson are wonderful. It’s a noteworthy collaboration given their collective appreciation for Brit Folk, enriched with the introduction of an element of ‘country’ into the song. "I saw Kacy and Clayton perform at Folk Alliance a few years ago and they were by far my favourite performance of the whole conference. They don’t put on airs or try to be anything or anyone they’re not, which is something I’m always drawn to in performers. So many musicians now rely on gimmicks, wardrobe, theatrics, etc. so to see a duo like Kacy and Clayton who are downright amazing well-rounded musicians without all that is inspiring."
The quality of albums being recorded by female artists like Dori Freeman at present is at an all-time high, yet the opportunities for radio play and exposure for females seems to be a constant struggle. Two years and two albums into her career I asked if she found this a frustration and how positive is she going forward."It is definitely more difficult in most respects for female musicians. The struggle to be taken seriously as not just a musician, but a band leader/frontwoman/songwriter, and the general criticisms, mostly physical, that women are subject to that men aren’t. Fortunately, I have a lot of really supportive and uplifting men in my life from my husband, my manager, Teddy, my father, and I think times are changing given what we’ve seen with the Me Too movement and others like it. I feel like I’m in a good and positive place with my career and its growth over the last few years."
Freeman, both in her music and interviews is enormously proud - and rightly so - about the rural Appalachian environment she was raised in, together with its musical traditions and indeed those of her families. She’s certainly not one to uproot to Nashville or elsewhere, as others have done, to further your career."I’ve never seen moving to a big city as a necessary step to better my career. I know so many musicians who do live in cities all over and we all travel the same amount. Having my home here in the mountains to share with my family and raise my daughter is much more important to me, and honestly improves the quality of my songs and makes me a better performer."
Followers of this talented young lady will be heartened to learn that she is writing and gathering material for another album and as a final question I explored whether her tried and trusted formula, which worked spectacularly well on her two recent albums, would prevail to which she replied."Yes, and yes. Wink wink."
Interview by Declan Culliton