It’s not like Cary Fridley has been keeping a low profile for the past several years. From her time as the rhythm guitarist for The Freight Hoppers, a now-defunct outfit that made waves in the old-time music scene in the late 1990s, to her more recent work with groups like The Lowdown Travelers and One Leg Up, Fridley has made a habit of collaborating with some of the area’s best musical talent.
But it’s as a solo performer that Fridley’s work truly shines. In 2001, she released her solo debut, Neighbor Girl, which earned glowing reviews from the likes of No Depression and Bluegrass Unlimited. Since Neighbor Girl, however, Fridley seems to have kept herself out of the center of the spotlight.
Until now, that is. Later this week, Fridley will debut Down South, her first solo release in seven years. The album is a collection of classic blues, country and old-time tunes reworked in the singer’s own eclectic style, featuring a wide range of local performers from Fridley’s various side projects and collaborations.
“I’m into Ashville and the musicians here and the scene here,” says Fridley. “I wanted to include them and represent myself and Asheville. And I wanted the whole thing to be a natural, organic experience with friends, coming from a good, peaceful, community-type place. Because I think that’s what Asheville has to offer.”
And represent she does. Stylistically speaking, Down South is nearly as diverse as the local music scene that Fridley has helped cultivate. Opening with a spattering of traditional old-time string arrangements, including the Carter Family’s “Lonesome Homesick Blues,” Fridley’s sharp, cutting vocals drive home the sincerity and heart of these seldom-recorded ballads.
In turn, these tunes seamlessly transition into Fridley’s first original country release, “Cheatin,” a twangy tale of infidelity inspired by a love affair her brother related one Christmas Eve from a military base in Baghdad.
“[My brother] was telling me this story about a friend he was worried about,” Fridley recalls. “His friend was in love with this other soldier, which was against the rules anyway, but she was also engaged to another soldier who was stationed in Germany. These two had been having this romance within their 10-hour workdays in this little space. And I was talking to him on the phone on Christmas Eve, and I said, ‘What’s going on with them?’ And he said, ‘Well, her fiance is flying in tonight, and she’s gotta decide. Somebody’s heart’s going to get broken tonight.’”
From there, Down South veers from tradition, delving into reverb-soaked, electric-harp blues, modern-country instrumentation and a sampling of more traditional, Grand Ole Opry-inspired arrangements, all the while employing rich harmonies, electric instruments and drums. What’s more, it does this without sacrificing the authenticity of the songs.
For Fridley, a self-described music “purist,” capturing the musical diversity and progressive attitude that make the Asheville sound unique was vital.
“In old-time music, before recordings, music had a sense of place,” she explains, her voice hinting at nostalgia. “You could hear a fiddler from Kentucky and he sounds like he’s from Kentucky. And I feel like we’re losing that. I miss that about today. I wanted this record to have a sense of place, and kind of return to that sense of place.”
And when it comes to fusing those elements, Fridley is a natural. A multi-instrumentalist who grew up taking professional piano lessons while playing banjo with the local pickers, she’s long been accustomed to blurring genres.
“I grew up around bluegrass mostly,” Fridley reveals. “I always had this dual thing happening where classical music was the real music—I was taking lessons when I was little—and bluegrass was what the country people played, and it was fun. But I’m from Covington, Va., and it’s all mixed in up there. Nobody called one thing bluegrass and the other thing something else. They played both, because there were old people playing and young people playing all together.”
While blurring those boundaries comes easily for Fridley, Down South still had its share of challenges. Fridley says that arranging such a diverse collection of songs and arrangements proved cumbersome.
“Everybody was saying, ‘There’s too many different styles. It’s not going to work. It’s not going to flow,’” she says. “And I was like, ‘I don’t care, I’m going to do it anyway. I’ll sort it out later. I want this song and this song and this song.’ And I ended up with too many songs, so if something was wrong with any of them, I was like, ‘That one’s out!’”
With time and patience, however, Fridley settled on 16 songs, creating a cohesive union of old and new. And as for that all-important flow?
“There’s this groove that I really like, that I would hear in different songs,” she says. “I think that kind of unifies it, in my mind. I don’t know if you can hear it.”
[Dane Smith is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]
Cary Fridley’s CD release show for Down South happens Friday, Sept. 14, at the Grey Eagle. 9 p.m. Seth Kauffman opens. $7. 232-5800.