The throwback country of Dori Freeman is winning national ears.
Dori freeman’s music sounds like it comes from another time.
“I hear that fairly often and it’s a huge compliment,” the 25-year-old singer says, calling from her home in Galax. “That’s what I grew up listening to ... the old country songs.”
Because of its homespun, straight-to-the-heart sound, Freeman’s self-titled CD, released last year on Free Dirt Records, has been hailed as an Americana classic. “It’s startling to hear such a fully formed singing and songwriting voice come out of nowhere,” NPR enthused, while Rolling Stone called Freeman one of the 10 new country artists you need to know and named her 10-song LP one of 2016’s best country albums.
With stark, heart-tugging originals such as “Still a Child” and “Ain’t Nobody,” Freeman sounds wise beyond her years, pleasingly anachronistic, with a vocal presence that invites comparisons to country legends Loretta Lynn and Emmylou Harris as well as—one of her favorites—pop stylist Peggy Lee. “Modern country is just not what I do, or what I want to do,” she says. “The best thing you can do as an artist is what comes naturally and try to be as genuine as you can.”
Freeman insists that her hometown in the hills—Galax, a town of 7,000 best known for its annual fiddling convention and its stature as a key stop on the Crooked Road musical heritage trail—is present in her sound. “I’m happy to talk about Galax because it has had such an impact on what I’m doing today and the kind of music I play. It’s a real grounding thing being from here, being part of the Appalachian Mountains and living in a place rich in tradition as far as music and art goes.” Freeman grew up surrounded by mountain culture, mainly through her father Scott Freeman and grandfather Willard Gayheart (a well-known pencil artist), who are both music makers.
“My dad and granddad were always playing gigs around town, with me and my mom traveling to the festivals and different shows my dad would play,” says Freeman. “I’ve always been around it and always kind of knew that this is what I wanted to do, one way or another.”
According to Virginia Folklife Program director Jon Lohman, while Freeman’s music is a product of her hometown, she’s also something of an anomaly. “She grew up around this old-time and bluegrass music where tradition is held in the highest regard—and musicianship in particular, like, who can play the hottest licks. You don’t often find a lot of original songwriters coming out of this environment, so I’m sure she has felt like a fish out of water sometimes.”
Dori started playing music at an early age, releasing two independent CDs of mostly cover songs in her late teens. But she disavows those efforts today. “I didn’t start writing songs until I was about 20 or so. Up until that point, I don’t feel that I had much to write about really. I think you have to live a little before you have anything to say.”
To get heard outside of the Galax porch circuit, Freeman took a chance and reached out to a contemporary artist she admires, New York-based singer-songwriter Teddy Thompson: “I sent him a message on Facebook with a clip of me performing one of his songs and said I would love to work with him in some capacity. I knew it was a long shot and didn’t think I’d get a response. But he wrote back fairly quickly. It was really encouraging. And he wanted to hear some more songs. We then met in person in Nashville and he offered to produce a record.” A Kickstarter campaign raised $13,165 and the album was recorded during a three-day New York session in February 2015.
The widespread acclaim has taken Freeman on national tours and earned her a slot at the Cambridge Folk Festival in England. But she’s still trying to navigate work and home—she was recently married and has a three-year-old daughter to take care of. “It can be pretty tough trying to balance it all,” she says. “I’m really fortunate to have super-supportive parents who live in the same area so they can watch my daughter when I have to go out and play.”
And new hubby Nicholas Falk is a talented drummer and claw-hammer banjo player, so that takes care of itself. “Lately I’ve been bringing him with me to shows,” she says. “We’ve worked up a little set of our own.”
Freeman has already started to plan her next album—again with Thompson producing—but beyond that, there’s no grand career plan or overarching goal. “I don’t really like to look at life that way,” the singer says. “That’s a recipe for disappointment. I try to just be happy with what happens—not look too far into the future, not have too many expectations. I just want to see where it goes.” DoriFreeman.com
This article originally appeared in our Feb. 2017 issue.