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Dori Freeman Is Painting Her Own Picture of Appalachia

Matt Williams

Matt Williams

As the acclaimed songwriter prepares for the release of 'Letters Never Read,' the 26-year-old gives a glimpse into the world she's creating.

Dori Freeman is at home in Galax, Virginia on an early October afternoon, sipping on something to soothe her throat after each time she talks, as she explains she doesn't have much of a voice today. "If I sound a little crackly, that's why," she laughs. Whatever the 26-year-old is drinking must be doing the trick, because she sounds clear as a bell and speaks concisely, with a thick Virginia accent that drops a lot of G's and sounds immediately friendly. Freeman grew up in Galax, a town with a population that hovers around 7,000, and she tells me she and her husband just bought a house there. She says working on things around the house and transforming it into their own space is a lot of constantly doing "little things here and there," but so far, so good.

"It's definitely the most adult feeling thing I've done since like, my life," she laughs. "Well, that and havin' a kid. That's a pretty adult thing too."

Historically, Galax was a very industrial town, with six factories alone dedicated to churning out furniture up and running in the town during the 60s. That's since changed along with the changing industrial landscape of the country over the past nearly 60 years, but Galax has remained a hub for certain musical traditions, specifically Appalachian, old-time, and bluegrass music. It's here and in the surrounding area, like her pencil artist grandfather's Kentucky, that Freeman's deep connection to the region's music began. Following her father and grandfather to folk festivals and fiddler's conventions as a kid, she absorbed her family's tunes as well as traditional songs like "Whiskey Before Breakfast," a spritely, kitchen party sorta number that makes it sound like the whiskey might've come before breakfast because no one's actually been to sleep yet. That did happen at home, too—Freeman would wake up in the middle of the night to hear her dad and his friends making music and get up to listen. And while you can't really call her brand of folk old-time or bluegrass, the influence is inescapable, and she feels honored to be a part of that family and regional tradition.

"My family has set a really good example, and I feel really blessed and lucky every day to have grown up where I did and with the people that I did," Freeman says. "I kind of always felt like it was necessary for me to carry on those traditions in one way or another. And it's taken me a little while to navigate that and figure out how, but I got on the right path makin' music and writin' songs and trying my best to carry it on."

While last year's self-titled record gained her heavy praise from the likes of NPR and The New York Times, her newest, Letters Never Read (out October 20), firmly establishes her as part of the musical traditions she comes from. For a folk record, it's incredibly diverse, as Freeman's familiarity with structure allows her to incorporate a wonderfully wide range of sounds. It opens with the wistful, straight-ahead country yearner "Make You My Own;" gets dreamy with "Cold Waves," a meditation on depression that feels as lackadaisical and cool as the condition it's describing; conjures images of her grandfather's Kentucky on his own a capella original "Ern and Zorry's Sneakin' Bitin' Dog;" and puts a muscled-up twang behind Richard and Linda Thompson's "I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight." That last one is as much about family as the rest of Letters Never Read—Richard not only plays guitar on the cover, but the album was produced by his son and fellow musician Teddy Thompson, who Freeman reached out to with a song over Facebook. This is their second album working together.

"Teddy's done more for me than just about anybody as far as my musical career goes," Freeman says. "I just reached out to him on a whim and got lucky he responded, and even luckier that this relationship has grown out of it. I've known him for goin' on three years now, and consider him a really good friend and mentor, and he's just been amazing to work with."

Like her self-titled record, it's also got some heart-wrenching moments, which Freeman is particularly skillful with. "Just Say It Now" sounds wistful and almost sunny, but it's just a cover, as she gently delivers lines like, "Now I'm cryin' on a big ol' empty floor, and yes, you wanted me, but I wanted you more." "I feel like I kinda have to make up for the sadness in my lyrics with a little bit more cheerful melodies sometimes," she laughs. "That's All Right," meanwhile, surrenders to its bleakness with ominous steel guitar as she sings about the devastation wrought on a relationship by a partner drinking himself away.

Photo by Kristen Horton

This juxtaposition of light and dark, along with the mosaic of sounds on Letters Never Read, is indicative of the Appalachian music Freeman was raised on. It's a type of music that can be as heavy as a soul moving slowly toward their final home ("Wayfaring Stranger") or goofy and funny. Even then, though, there's often an element of dark humor or woe injected into the music.

"There are a lot of really light-hearted songs that are just kinda silly and upbeat, and then a lot of really dark songs like all the murder ballads, the child ballads," Freeman explains. "Those are all just a whole different subject matter, some of 'em don't even get played anymore because they're so intense lyrically. But I don't know, I feel like there's just somethin' really honest about Appalachian music. The people who play it don't ever really pretend to be anything else and they're not trying to impress anyone, they're just playin' whatever comes from their heart."

In the past, Freeman has spoken out about the way she feels the rest of the country sees Appalachia—as a kind of excessively backwater, impoverished, and prejudiced place, full of hillbillies—and why she thinks that reputation is undeserved. Surely, Appalachia isn't without its issues, but neither is any other region of the U.S. So I wonder, if she were to create a vision of where's she from for people who have only been exposed to the stereotypical ideas of Appalachia, what would it look like?

"I hope I am in the process of painting my own picture," Freeman says. "I think people have this picture of Appalachia and the South in general as being more conservative and more bigoted and racist and prejudiced than other parts of the country, but it's not really a fair assumption. I've traveled to a lot of other places in the country, that are rural and big cities alike, and you find the same thing everywhere you go. It's more a human thing than a location thing."

And while Galax isn't much of an industry center, it's certainly a deeply musical place, and one that embraces its musical history. Freeman explains that there's even a program for young kids called J.A.M. (Junior Appalachian Musicians) that goes into public schools to teach kids old-time and bluegrass music in order to not lose those traditions. Her father still teaches fiddle, mandolin, guitar, and sometimes bass. Freeman also considers the town a perfect home base: touring is such a massive part of her life that Galax's slower pace and homeyness allows her to focus her time away from the road on her four-year-old daughter, who she credits with giving her the push to go all in with pursuing a career in music.

"I had a lot more determination to do it after my daughter was born," Freeman says. "Especially because I'm raising a little girl, and I wanna raise her into a woman who can make decisions for herself and isn't afraid to go after things. So it was kinda just a wake-up call for me, that in order to raise her that way I had to do those things myself."

Sometimes her little girl is along for the ride, too, in keeping with the family traditions Freeman experienced herself. Last weekend she was at a festival camping along with the rest of her family and absorbing music the same way her mother did, building the same deep connection to the music of Appalachia and Galax that pushed Freeman to carry on the tunes and forge a path with her own music. And that means those musical traditions won't be going away anytime soon.

"My goal is to just keep makin' this music and play it for as many people as possible," Freeman says. "And hopefully get folks to look at it in a different light, and listen to it from a different place than they have before."

Matt Williams loves old timey music. He's on Twitter.