When the day comes that old-time players start skimming their own diaries for lyrics, Cary Fridley will probably pack her bags and leave town.
She’s safe for now. In a recent interview, the singer/guitarist singled out what isolates old-time from other locally popular musical forms: a noted lack of “the ego thing” — at least when it comes to performing.
Singer/songwriters thrive on the confessional itch and rock bands dream of packed houses (or at least a respectable draught of indie credibility). Bluegrass, too, has its mind on star making: The genre’s insistence on shock-and-awe solos makes it a potentially more lucrative undertaking for roots-oriented musicians.
“The general public would rather pay for a flashy show,” Fridley comments.
The song’s the thing
Playing Southern Appalachian fiddle tunes, on the other hand, “is more about what we can do when we all come together, rather than what I can do better than you,” the singer elaborates.
Whether sung a cappella or interpreted by a string band, shared in worship or tossed off in leisure, songs in 19th- and early-20th-century Western North Carolina usually dated back centuries. Settlers from England, Ireland and Scotland brought them to these mountains, where isolation sheltered the music’s integrity.
Today, traditional old-time players honor these same songs, largely scorning the urge to impress their audiences with original material.
When an old-time band performs, “no one [player] stands out more than the others,” explains Fridley.
“Not to put down bluegrass, because I love it — and to celebrate the individual is a wonderful thing,” she goes on. In old-time, though, “no one is trying to wow [the audience] technically. We sit down, put our heads together, and groove out. It’s not competitive … it’s like holding hands in a circle and making a balance.”
A one-time high-school music teacher, Fridley says she’s feeling a bit more balanced herself, these days. She was co-vocalist and rhythm guitarist for six years for the old-time band the Freight Hoppers — the Bryson City-based group that became international festival headliners and then disbanded in 2000 after putting out two discs on Rounder Records.
“[I was] on the road all the time,” explains Fridley, a native of the Virginia mountains. “It affected my friendships and my garden — my cats hated me. I’m really glad there’s enough going on in Asheville now that I can keep busy just trying to go where I naturally want to go.”
Right now, that means a few forays away from old-time bands, including lending stand-up bass and vocal harmonies to country-blues group The Low Down Travelers. Fridley’s also been heard lately in various incarnations of ex-Blue Rag “Woody” Wood’s band. (A popularly garrulous singer/guitarist, Wood delivers a hyper payload of shaggy-dog blues, providing an odd contrast to Fridley’s sincere croon.)
Fridley’s own self-titled band, which also featured traditional-music twins Trevor and Travis Stuart of Haywood County, recently ran its course. Not ready to drop old-time, though, she’s set to focus on another of her projects, the year-old, all-women trio Devilish Mary (with banjo player/vocalist Lora Pendleton of Black Mountain and guitarist/fiddler McLean Bissell, another ex-Freight Hopper).
Many of Fridley’s friends who play old-time are, like her, transplants to the area.
“We want to be close to where the conception of [old-time music] was,” she notes. “We want to see the mountains [that late Madison County ballad singer] Dellie Norton was looking at when she sang her songs; we want to hear the natural speech of the area.”
However, Fridley’s long involvement in regional old-time projects — via the Freight Hoppers and her subsequent solo work — allows her to acknowledge what she calls the scene’s “bad rap.”
“It’s kind of underground, and not so much based around performances but around people getting together and learning tunes,” she explains. “It’s not a jamming scene, like bluegrass: ‘Let’s get 30 people together and play.’ So people think the old-time community is snooty and stuck-up.”
In certain circles, it’s notorious for being just that. Local old-time musicians, adds Fridley carefully, “do like to meet and play with new people” — but they’ll leave the hail-fellows-well-met vibe to the drum circles.
“We’re protective of [the music's] tradition,” she says simply.
The scene’s exclusiveness is “a cultural phenomenon of here,” Fridley goes on to reveal. “When I was in the Freight Hoppers, we traveled all over the country, and went to a lot of old-time parties. And in a lot of places, like California, they take styles and tunes from all over the place and create their own style.
“That’s kind of offensive to the people here, who are playing the style from here. When someone from Portland comes here and they play a tune from Canada or something, it’s like, ‘That’s nice … lets play our tunes now,’” she says with a laugh.
Even local fiddler Rayna Gellert, daughter of enormously respected old-time banjo player/fiddler Dan Gellert, was thwarted in her hunt for like-minded musicians when she entered Warren Wilson College from her native Indiana in 1994.
“I had this rather false impression that Warren Wilson was just chock full of people playing old-time music,” she says now. “I thought all the students played fiddle and banjo — I thought that was part of the deal.”
Not so: “There were literally maybe three people there when I started who played old-time.”
What she didn’t realize, adds Gellert, was “that there was this huge scene” — it just wasn’t happening on the proverbial street corner.
As is still the case today, networking proved instrumental in cracking the string-band circuit. Through friends, Gellert was introduced to John Hermann and other old-time movers-and-shakers; she went on to tour briefly with the Freight Hoppers before returning to the Asheville area.
Today, along with various side projects, Gellert continues to collaborate with Hermann (who co-helmed with Dirk Powell and Tim O’Brien Sugar Hill’s Songs From the Mountain collection, inspired by Charles Frazier’s novel Cold Mountain). But, she admits, “I play way more away from home.” Fresh from an appearance with Hermann at MerleFest, Gellert is looking at a summer schedule that includes stops at folk festivals in Minnesota, D.C., Los Angeles and New York.