In 1999, Cary Fridley left the Freight Hoppers to settle in Asheville, North Carolina. A year later, she released Neighbor Girl, showcasing the traditional Appalachian music she loves, on her own Juba label. While performing locally in various traditional contexts, she broadened her musical palette as she faced the working musician’s primary challenge: economic survival.
Goin’ Down South, her new self-released effort, reflects those experiences. “It was seven years since the first album, and [to me] it was, ‘What have I been doing, and what would represent me right now?’” she says. “What are my things I stand out the best on, what are my favorite songs, and if I could take the best of my musical life here in Asheville, what would it be?”
“Scotland Man” (with the 7 Mile Ford String Band), “Pretty Saro”, and the Carter Family’s “Lonesome Homesick Blues”, with Daniel Coolik on guitar, dominate the album, but Fridley turns a corner by offering edgy electric blues renditions of R.L. Burnside’s “Goin’ Down South” and Blind Willie McTell’s “God Don’t Like It” with the Lowdown Travelers. A raw, austere honky-tonk band frames Kitty Wells’ “Making Believe” and the Ola Belle Reed composition (and Freight Hoppers favorite) “You Led Me To The Wrong”. Fridley’s first original, the country ballad “Cheatin’”, was inspired by a story her brother — then stationed in Iraq — told her of a comrade who was engaged to one soldier and in love with another. “It’s a strange song, ’cause it’s from the man’s point of view,” she says.
Given the note on Fridley’s MySpace page explaining the album’s diversity, does she anticipate flak from traditionalists? “That crossed my mind, but I decided not to care,” she laughs. “I decided one of the reasons behind the Freight Hoppers’ success is we were trying to not be pretentious and we were just trying to do the thing that we loved the best. I think that’s why we got a good response.
“In a lot of ways, I’m a purist when it comes to old-time music. So with the other music on there, I was trying to free myself up and just express in a more modern vein. It was honest both ways.”
Fridley grew up in Covington, Virginia, ten miles from the West Virginia line. Her dad, a local pharmacist, never pursued his dreams of playing bluegrass banjo, but when he noticed the instrument fascinated his daughter, he helped her get lessons. When she was 12, he began dropping her off at a weekly bluegrass jam held by locals he knew well, all experienced amateurs who imparted the musical wisdom instruction books don’t teach. They also encouraged her to sing.
“I’m there by myself, and they never played music with women,” she laughs. “I would go every week and those old men taught me how to play.”
Trained in classical flute and armed with a Master’s in music education, Fridley taught high school choir for a year in Mocksville, North Carolina, in 1994. “I started playing with the Freight Hoppers the summer after my first year teaching, and I thought, this is a lot more fun than teaching,” she reflects. “I’m just going to move to Bryson City and be poor and play the guitar all the time.”
A subsequent move to Asheville expanded her horizons. “I kind of started over again,” she says. “That’s when I started doing the blues and I really got into Cajun music. I just wanted to explore and relax and play.”
Economic realities soon intervened. “It’s hard to pay the bills that way,” she acknowledges. “I taught privately and, playing bass, I could play all different kinds of gigs, more than if I was just an old-time guitar player.”
Her role as a bassist and singer with One Leg Up, exponents of Django Reinhardt-inspired acoustic Gypsy jazz, “activates a different part of my brain,” she says, adding, “it took me to school, but it was worth it.” Solo gigs, private teaching and a couple years of teaching music at a local experimental charter school (she left late last year) allowed her to buy a house and save some money.
Does the confusion between authentic traditional music and tradition-flavored Americana singer-songwriter fare inspired by O Brother, Where Art Thou? trouble her? “I was worried you were going to ask me that question, because I don’t want to diss anything anybody else is doing, but yes,” she says.
“That bothers me because I feel like it…might water things down. I don’t like that stuff and it’s harder for me to listen to that. I definitely don’t want to do that. I just have to look at it as two completely different things. But what I don’t like is when they call it old-time music.”
Bent on enhancing but not abandoning her beloved Appalachian sound, Fridley’s new backing band will embrace the eclecticism of Goin’ Down South. “It’s kind of leaning like a western swing-type setup,” she explains. “I really want to write more songs. I have no idea what the next project will be.”