Cary Fridley was steeped in music as a child, studied music in graduate school, worked as a music teacher and played professionally in bands for more than a decade. But when it came to writing her first album of original songs, she did things the old-fashioned way: She sang to herself in the shower.
As Fridley describes it, many of the tunes on her new album, Fare You Well, came to her almost effortlessly, as if she was simply transcribing songs she'd heard played on Madison County porches many times before. "The way the first song came to me I was just singing a song in the shower, kind of singing a tune, and I was like, 'What is that song? I know that song, that's a great song.' And then I would sing it to other people and be like 'What is that song?' And nobody would know what it was," she says. "Then I was like, 'No one's written that song yet. I think I'll write it down.' Then I wrote some words to it and it sounds like an old country song. So I just tried to be open to it and tried to write down ideas. … sing melodies and see what comes out."
It was a long, winding journey that led to Fridley's first creative songwriting revelation. The singer and multi-instrumentalist got her start on banjo at the age of 13, sitting in on bluegrass jams around her hometown of Covington, Va. "My dad ran a pharmacy and these old men would come in to the pharmacy. They'd always sing songs and be crazy. They really helped me learn how to play," she says.
Fridley went on to learn how to sing in school chorus, but her main focus became the flute, which she studied at both the undergrad and graduate levels. But a career in flute wasn't meant to be. "My flute teacher told me I was never going to make it as a flutist, and that I should hang it up. I was crushed. … I shut the door on the flute and just started playing the banjo and guitar and just started singing country songs," she says. "It ended up being the right thing I think. … When the flute world stopped, the other world opened up."
Within a year, Fridley landed a gig playing guitar in the Freight Hoppers, touring the country for six years with what became the most popular old-time Ístring band of the '90s. “It was like being in grad school for guitar chords,” Fridley says of those years. Fridley settled in Asheville and expanded her repertoire to include bass, now her preferred instrument. "We had six different bass players, and I always had to train the bass player. I just kind of got really into the bass because it's really cool. I like that it's really groovy and minimal. I don't think I'm going to change again," she says.
Many bands followed, including the bluesy Lowdown Travelers and the current touring group she fronts, Down South. It was on tour several years ago with the Lowdown Travelers when she first met Seth Kauffman — the mastermind behind rising tropical-pop band Floating Action — who Fridley tapped to produce Fare You Well.Í
"I thought, here's my good friend who's a genius and we're supporting each other's music, and it just seemed like a natural thing to do," Fridley says. "Everything of his I listen to, I think it just sounds so special and so different. … It just really stands out. I know he's really smart and really creative. And I know he listens to the same old records that I do. So I just feel like he's a kindred spirit."
Kauffman's use of vintage equipment and his signature low-fi recording approach gives Fridley's old-school country ballads ("Fare You Well," "Follow the Spark") and bluesy romps ("Baby I Can See," "Been Untrue") the feel of coming from a bygone era of reverb and twang-heavy AM radio. The final product channels Fridley's heros like Memphis Minnie, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and the Carter Family, but the voice that emerges throughout the six tracks is authentically her own. Fridley credits her naturally retro sound to her years of immersion in the music of Southern Appalachia, paired with a deep love of history. "I think I love the imaginary world of the past, the fantasy world of what the past might have been," she says. "I think I like it because of the no electricity and it was very natural, living outdoors — the songs are all about that. I just think it's a really beautiful era."
Adding to the down-home feel of the album is pedal steel from the masterful Matt Smith ,and soulful fiddle and vocal harmonies from Stephen Trismen. Their ensemble honors the songs by harnessing the power of minimalism. "I think it takes a lot of patience and a lot of presence of mind to be able to hold the beat back to the right degree that makes it sound really funky and makes you want to get down," Fridley says.
Fridley is excited to bring the new songs to life as she tours the Southeast this summer with Down South, which includes Trisman and Smith (Kauffman plans to join the group on guitar for the Fare You Well CD-release show). As for what lies ahead, Fridley says that while country and blues influences remain at the heart of her ongoing singing-in-the-shower songwriting sessions, she's open to anything, and cites a particular fondness for reggae bass lines. "I would say the [reggae] groove is not too far away from the blues groove. … We're probably going to lean towards the bluesy stuff in the future," she says. "I want to be influenced by the red thread as they call it, that has existed for hundreds of years, but I don't want to live in the past. I want to still be pushing it forward."
[Jake Frankel is an Asheville-based freelance writer.]
who: Cary Fridley
what: CD release featuring blues and country originals
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Thursday, July 9 (9 p.m. $7 doors or $15 for entry and CD. www.thegreyeagle.com).