Can you go your own way and reconnect with your roots at the same time? With her fourth full-length album, “Ten Thousand Roses,” Galax, Virginia-based Americana luminary Dori Freeman has proven it’s not only possible, but transformative.
After a string of three acclaimed LPs produced by Teddy Thompson, the well-known singer-songwriter and son of folk rock legends Richard and Linda Thompson, Freeman arrived at a fork in the road. One path pointed to New York City, where her previous albums had been tracked. The other followed her aspirations to record in Virginia, where Freeman was born and raised, and where she’d been hoping to record at some point.
While it’s hard to forgo a winning formula, the decision to do so was mutual. “I really hope Teddy and I will work together again at some point,” Freeman says, “but for this one, we both agreed that maybe it would be time to work with someone else.”
Taking the road less traveled, in this case, steered her closer to home in multiple ways. Freeman grew up exceptionally close to the heart of Virginia’s musical tradition. Galax is a major stop on the commonwealth’s Crooked Road music heritage trail, playing host to a beloved fiddler’s convention whose 2022 installment will be its 86th. Freeman’s family figures prominently there; both her father, Scott Freeman, and her grandfather, Willard Gayheart, are musicians as well, and Freeman has fond memories of being immersed in music as a child.
“That was just something that was a major part of my childhood,” she says. “The Galax fiddler’s convention, art shows with my grandfather, [instrumental] competitions with my dad, or any kind of gig my dad was playing. My mom and I would go on the weekends with him and travel around.”
In her own time on the road, Freeman has enjoyed getting to know all corners of Virginia’s musical landscape. While her own work is more informed by than representative of the old-time style her home region is known for, she’s carried the Galax banner at numerous festivals and events, including the launch of Virginia Tourism’s “Virginia Is for Music Lovers” campaign that took place at the Broadberry in 2016.
That’s where Freeman first crossed paths with Adrian Olsen and Alex Spalding, who operate Montrose Recording studio. Olsen and Spalding’s band Avers was also on the bill, and in the handful of years that followed, Freeman and her husband, drummer Nick Falk, each had opportunities to contribute to projects recorded at Montrose and get to know the Henrico studio’s welcoming facilities.
“Adrian and Alex are just the nicest, coolest people, and the little spot they have is so wonderful,” Freeman says. “They have the little [guest] house right by the studio, so it makes it really easy.”
When it came time to record “Ten Thousand Roses,” whose songs were written during the pandemic what else was I going to do but sit down and try to write?” – Freeman chose Montrose, and her choice of producer hit even closer to home.
“I ended up asking Nick, my husband and the guy who plays drums on the record, to produce it, and I kind of co-produced it a little bit from the side.” In doing so, she’s hit a new creative stride that builds outward from the previous one.
Clarity is a hallmark of Freeman’s work. Her songwriting consists of expertly crafted verses and choruses, sculpted in a way that makes it hard to imagine that extra words or rough edges were ever there to begin with. Her voice is just as crystalline, whether she’s singing alone or harmonizing.
“I was always an alto in chorus,” she says, “so we always sang the harmony parts. Because of that, I think I’ve always loved harmony.” She cites the way Rufus Wainwright stacks vocal harmonies as especially influential. “Even when I’m listening to music in the car, I’m always singing a harmony part.”
Teddy Thompson’s production on Freeman’s previous albums brought out those qualities beautifully, but with “Ten Thousand Roses,” Freeman aimed to foreground facets of her artistry that remained unheard after three albums – and to forge new ones.
The lyrics delight in upending expectations. The fourth track, “I Am,” starts with a subversive declaration: “I ain’t a good girl though everybody thinks I am.” The payoff of the next song, “Nobody Nothing,” is just as freeing: “You don’t owe nobody nothin’ / Now ring the bell and make a joyful sound.”
There are surprises on the instrumental side as well. “It’s just a different sound,” she says of the new album. “I play electric guitar on this record, which I’ve not done in the past. I usually just play acoustic. I wrote some little guitar riffs, which is something very out of my comfort zone.”
The electric guitar in “Get You Off of My Mind” has a considerable crunch to it, and the song builds to an ecstatic mix of guitar, piano, organ and mandolin – a big finale befitting the big implications of the title lyrics, stated with characteristic directness in each chorus.
A more expansive sound also fits this moment in which artists everywhere are looking to get back to the open road after a protracted period of reduced touring activity. “I’m just really happy that my schedule is starting to look like there’s stuff on it again after two years of not really doing much,” she notes.
Just a few months before the pandemic began, Freeman was part of a special set at the 2019 Richmond Folk Festival that brought her husband, her father and her grandfather together as the Willard Gayheart Family Band – closer to a supergroup than a mere family jam. They took turns leading tunes; Dori and Nick dueted on a sparse number entitled “Heavenly Sunlight,” which would end up as the title track from a gospel EP they released in early 2020, and Gayheart sang his ode to backcountry street smarts, “Ern And Zorry’s Sneakin’ Bitin’ Dog,” which Freeman recorded a cappella for her 2017 album, “Letters Never Read.”
“I’ve done Richmond Folk Fest a couple times and it’s been awesome both times,” she says. “Any time I get to perform with my grandpa in particular is special. He’s almost 90 and I want to do that as much as I can before I’m not able to do that anymore.”
At the same time she’s making the most of those opportunities to honor previous generations, she’s looking to make an impact on the next. During the 2019 Richmond Folk Festival, Freeman also participated in a songwriters’ showcase primarily consisting of women songwriters, and she’s brought her own daughter into the fold in much the same way she was early on.
“Her childhood so far has been really similar to mine as far as that goes,” Freeman says. “Traveling with us when we’re playing at different festivals or different places and getting to see different parts of the country that kids – especially around here – don’t have the opportunity to see. It’s something that I’m really glad that I’m able to share with her.”
Dori Freeman will open for the Oliver Wood Trio at the Camel on Tuesday, April 19. Doors open at 7 p.m. and tickets are $25. For more information visit thecamel.org. To hear “Ten Thousand Roses,” visit dorifreeman1.bandcamp.com.