There's something about honky-tonk in the throes of a cold snap when all anyone wants to do is forget about the outside world and warm up with the help of a hot toddy and some even hotter dance moves. Enter Cary Fridley and Down South, a self-described Appalachian roots country outfit led by bassist/singer/Freight Hoppers alum Fridley.
Fridley's band has morphed a bit in the several years it's been around. Most notably, past guitarists (Daniel Coolik, Jon Stickley) and drummers (Lance Wille, Jacob Baumann) have been replaced by Floating Action's Michael Libramento and Evan Martin. This move is likely related to Fridley's most recent album, Fare You Well, being produced by Floating Action frontman Seth Kauffman.
But Kauffman's trademark lo-fi touch was not part of Fridley's recent Jack of the Wood performance. Instead, her band (including fiddler/vocalist Steve Trismen, Matthew Smith on pedal steel and Bob Willoughby on keys) served up plush, resonant, bass-heavy tunes that straddled the line between vintage and modern.
Fridley and Trismen put their own lyrical spin on The Flying Burrito Brothers' "High Fashion Queen" before launching into the sultry waltz of Delbert McClinton's "Got You On My Mind." The next number, a stomp-blues song with rock drums and pedal steel sounding like a '70s-era organ, gave the musicians a chance to show off. Instrumental breaks were ripe with texture and coiled energy, suggesting that the song structure was little more than a foil for the band to cut loose.
The audience seemed in on that secret, too. Local musicians like Kyle Smith, Vollie Mackenzie and Woody Pines watched while ace dancers practiced swing and two-step. And, in a shout out to another area fiddler, Fridley dedicated "We'll Sweep Out the Ashes in the Morning" (originally a duet by Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris) to Darin Gentry.
Wearing a retro dress and tall boots, posing for pictures, petite Fridley practically begs the adjective "cute." Add to that her character-rich singing voice, baring some similarity to essayist Sarah Vowell. But when Fridley launched into the blues standard "Rollin' and Tumblin,'" her high notes took on a dangerous edge and her low tones a menacing growl. Martin set a brisk pace with brushes on snare, lending a spooky, renegade feel — more J.J.Cale than Muddy Waters. Fridley herself is a bit of a master of redefinition: In old-time group the Freight Hoppers she played rhythm guitar, and as a solo artist she extensively researched ballads by the likes of the Carter Family, Hazel Dickens, Alice Gerrard; in 2007 she was written about in No Depression for self-released album Goin' Down South, which paired mountain traditional with gritty blues a la R.L. Burnside and Blind Willie McTell. Down South, with Fridley on bass (her current instrument of choice) is a culmination of all of these influences.
While every minute of the Down South performance was compelling — the band plays with a loose ease belying its flawless delivery — some highlights included the gorgeous ring of Smith's pedal steel on Fridley's raw, emotive original tune "Fare You Well" and Willoughby taking the lead on Hoagy Carmichael's "New Orleans."
Willoughby is a multi-instrumentalist who plays everything from old-time and contra dance music to blues and swing, but with Down South his rollicking piano licks and rough, Professor Longhair-reminiscent vocals brought the steamy bygone Crescent City into chilly, present-day Asheville.