Dori Freeman: Blue Virginia Blues

Photo by Zeno Gill

One of the utopian promises of the internet was that music would be democratized, that independent artists would be able to receive instantaneous worldwide audiences without having to rely on major label marketing and carefully coordinated publicity campaigns. We’ve long since learned that promise, by and large, has proved false, but every now and then it delivers, providing artists with widespread fan-bases who otherwise may never have been heard.

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Dori Freeman, a 25-year-old singer and songwriter hailing from Galax, Virginia, is one of those artists. In February, Freeman released her self-titled label debut, and immediately began garnering rave reviews from everyone who managed to get their hands on the album.

“East Nashville feels tapped out, and Austin was done many years ago,” wrote the alternative country publication Saving Country Music. “The best music happening right now you’re likely to never hear, unless you’re one of the lucky ones to stumble upon a local artist with world-class talent, an artist like Dori Freeman.”

Released on the small Washington, D.C. label Free Dirt Records, Freeman has been utterly surprised by the acclaim and attention she’s received. “I didn’t go into the album with expectations,” she says, calling from home in Galax. “I just wanted to put it out and see how it did, and I’ve been certainly surprised and thrilled and flattered that it’s received the reception it’s gotten.”

Dori Freeman is deserving of every bit of its praise. With influences that range from gospel to jazz to girl-group pop to ’50s country, Freeman delivers her original compositions with a calm confidence and sharp delivery. Her voice, which croons, warbles, moans, belts and whispers from one song to the next, is understated, powerful without ever having to rely on cheap theatrics. Her songs, which on the surface face outward at sloppy decisions and failed relationships but ultimately point inward — at guilt, insecurity, confusion, and regret — are case studies in expert pop songwriting. “How am I supposed to go on loving?” she asks in the trad-country gem “Go On Lovin.’” “When you left me feeling like I don’t know how.”

The album draws its influences, most specifically, from the four-part harmonies of the Mills Brothers and the jazzy stylings of Peggy Lee, two artists that Freeman listened to most intently when writing her breakthrough LP. Those influences are deeply ingrained in the record’s arrangements, which draw from jazz and R&B every bit as gracefully as country and folk.

Dori Freeman grew up in Galax, Virginia, a musical stronghold with a rich history of traditional music in small-town Appalachia. Galax is perhaps best known as the home of the country’s oldest and biggest annual Fiddle Convention, and both Dori’s father, Scott Freeman, and grandfather, pencil artist Willard Gayheart, are well-established local musicians with a long history in the region.

But as much as has been made of her traditional Appalachian roots, Freeman also had an archetypal American musical upbringing for a kid coming of age around the turn of the century. Like most kids, Freeman grew up listening to Top 40 radio. The first cassette she bought with her own money was Britney Spears’ 1999 debut. As a preteen Freeman and her friends were avid fans of Warped Tour-era emo, and she later began to refine her tastes as a teenager when she discovered singer-songwriters like Linda Ronstadt and Nanci Griffith.

All the while, Freeman was of course seeping up up local influences from her family and local music community, and in 2011 she self-released her traditional-leaning debut Porchlight. But one can hear Freeman’s wide-ranging childhood influences in the sturdy songcraft and impeccable sense of pop melody on her latest album.

“I am really proud to be where I’m from,” Freeman says. “Even though my music and songwriting is not bluegrass or old time, and you may not hear any of that in there, it was a big influence growing up and it’s where I got my start.” Freeman has not minded the constant attention and interest surrounding her Appalachian roots. “I understand why people are curious,” she says. “It’s a part of America that not a lot of people hear that much about, so people are naturally drawn to Appalachia, because it’s mysterious and they romanticize it a little bit.”

On stage, Freeman lays bare her roots most plainly. At a recent set in a stuffy downtown Manhattan venue, Freeman transformed the stage into something of a familial back porch gathering as she covered Hank Williams hits and sang her favorite song written by her grandfather, a humorous a cappella tune called “Ern and Zori’s Sneakin’ Bitin’ Dog.”

“It’s important for me to bring those things to my live performances,” she says. “A lot of these stories are things most people are never going to hear about otherwise.”

Look Homeward, Angel Olsen