Even when she’s not singing, Dori Freeman’s voice lilts with the clear and distinct meter of Southwest Virginia, giving it a transfixing, melancholic quality. It was in those dulcet tones that she spoke of her upcoming gig at the Red Wing Roots Music Festival>, where she is kicking off the event at noon on Friday, July 13 on the Shenandoah Mountain Stage. Freeman will be co-billing with headlining acts Trampled By Turtles, Josh Ritter, Steep Canyon Rangers and I’m With Her (whose Aoife O’Donovan was featured on Freeman’s most recent album, Letters Never Read). The festival, which spans three days, four stages, and 40 bands, takes place at Natural Chimneys Park in Mount Solon.
A native of Galax, the festival’s rural setting feels natural to Freeman. Galax is well-known as the epicenter of “old time” bluegrass, a folk tradition that has always been part of her life. Though her family owns the Front Porch Frame Shop and Gallery, they also make it their business to share the family’s music with their customers. Dori’s father, Scott Freeman, taught her to play the guitar and still teaches music lessons in the shop. Her grandfather, Wilson Gayheart, has a series of pencil drawings on display there and stops in frequently to pick out a tune.
Dori recently put down roots in town with her husband, Nick Falk, and their daughter. At Red Wings, he will join her on stage to accompany on drum, banjo, and vocal harmonies. Along with original songs from her two albums, they plan to turn out some classic gospel and country. “Our favorite to do together—it’s a true duet—is ‘Heavenly Sunlight,’” she said. “It’s an old Baptist hymn that has just one hand drum and two voices.”
The frame shop recently had another pivotal role in Dori’s musical career, as she just finished recording the tracks for a new album in it. The decision to record there was part sentimental and part logistical—Gayheart works there and had to wait on customers in between takes. The album features her grandfather’s original songs with Dori and Scott backing him up vocally and on various traditional instruments. “There’s something magical about family singing in harmony,” she said.
She knew a lot of her grandfather’s stories growing up, but while pouring over his songs in preparation for the family album, she grew to have a deeper understanding of his upbringing in Eastern Kentucky. Having been raised during the Great Depression without access to electricity, it’s a different side of Appalachia than the one she knows. “People have this idea that Appalachians are dumb or ignorant, just a bunch of hillbillies,” she said, "but there’s no more of that here than any other place.”
Changing that perception is part of why she has remained in Galax. “People ask if I have plans to move,” she said. “I don’t. My husband and I bought a house here. If you want to see change in your small town, stay and do it yourself. That’s the only way. I want to be something positive people think of when they think of this place.”
The album, to be completed later this year, is being produced by Teddy Thompson, the same name behind Freeman’s first two releases. Before her eponymous debut in 2016, she reached out to him over Facebook. “I was a fan of his and we ended up working well together,” she said. They’ll be back in the studio this fall to work on her third solo album.
Dori has been singing for most of her life, but started taking it seriously in school choir. She performed with her father as a teenager and learned guitar from him at age 15. A fiddle, mandolin, and guitar player himself, he played a little bit of everything around the house when she was growing up: Doc Watson, Alison Krauss, Linda Ronstadt. Those influences, combined with her community’s focus on bluegrass, helped Dori cultivate her own style, which she described as a modern, honest look at traditional folkways. “It’s hard to grow up around it and not play in some form,” she said.
Her songwriting takes in all of those influences to create a distinct voice in the Appalachian tradition. “I write a lot of sad songs,” she said. “I write as honestly as I can. My songs are all things I’ve experienced or were inspired by someone I know. Being honest, the more relatable it comes out.”
But, being a mother, Dori has to be picky about what she takes on, noting that she doesn’t know many other touring musician mothers. Her daughter, now five years old, is growing up around the same family musical culture that she did. Already singing and learning guitar, Dori said, “She’s taking fast to it.” Along with the show in Mount Solon, she’s hitting some summer festivals in Virginia and North Carolina, and even plans to tour through Canada and England.
That schedule is demanding, but full of opportunity, and it’s one that she’s ready to take on. In a world that can seem a million miles away from the music she loves, Dori Freeman knows exactly who she is and what she’s doing.
Dori Freeman will be performing at Red Wing Roots Music Festival on Friday, July 13 at Natural Chimneys Park in Mount Solon. Full schedule and tickets available at redwingroots.com. Hear Freeman’s music at dorifreeman.com.
Photography by Kristen Horton