The crisp morning sun rises on the east bank, its sharp, unwavering rays piercing the muddy waters. A starry-eyed whimsy flows up from the creek beds, rustling through the trees, tumbling out of the mountaintops and down the countryside. The gathering villages and towns take it in, 9-5 troubles melting away, revealing a brightly-hewn sorrow, which is then funneled into a rich musical heritage. The working class mill about like fire ants. The Appalachian ridge looms from above, casting an ominous and weary shadow, and grips the culture and its people into a firm embrace. The chilly mountain air is met with pristine melodies, railroad-welded musicianship and a roomy, feathered choir of lonesome voices. The 1,500-mile stretch of winding peaks and valleys are the backbone, and the music is the faint but resilient heartbeat. It is deep within the two Virginias that you can often hear the strain of the Great Depression still whispering, bouncing across locals’ steadfast courage, ostensibly bestowing a withered optimism.
Even the smallest triumphs come crashing down with eagle-like brute.
Dori Freeman, a troubadour out of Galax, Virginia, a southern establishment of roughly 7,000, gathers these broken red-earth fragments into her hands, tenderly caressing and cobbling them into a threadbare mosaic, and then crafts them into a sparkling, refurbished landscape. Letters Never Read reads as a tear-soaked love letter ⎯⎯ “You think if you’re moving then the world is moving, too / But there’s a million other eyes who shine the same as you / And one day, your collection of things that might have been will fall behind the light into a long, darkened den,” she sings with plain-spoken clarity on “Lovers on the Run.” She exerts a Linda Ronstadt warmth in her approach, enveloping and caramel, best represented on “Cold Waves,” which could have landed on any number of early Ronstadt records, including Heart Like a Wheel and Silk Purse. Mountain living, front-porch sitting and blue-collar temperament purr gently throughout Freeman’s inflections, often feeling like a long-forgotten book of folklore, timeless and eerily reverent. “I would give you my heart and my pride / I would give you the rib from my side / I would promise to love and abide if I could make you my own,” she dares on the first line of the record, carved from not only her bluegrass and folk makeup but from her emotionally grueling-muses, which cause her to fall “apart at the seams,” she confronts on “Just Say It Now,” then admitting, “And without warning, you’ve invaded all of my dreams.”
Teddy Thompson (Shelby Lynn, Allison Moorer) returns as producer, and together, the pair exchange booming backing for earthier tones, shaded with Freeman’s pure but bewitching vocals. The second half of the LP contains some of singer’s most excellent work, witnessed on an a cappella recording of “Ern & Zorry’s Sneakin’ Bitin’ Dog,” originally penned by her grandfather and accomplished musician Willard Gayheart, and a measured, windy take of Jim Reeves’ “Yonder Comes a Sucker.” Freeman carries a heavy sweetness behind her, heaving and tearing against the swell of tears in the back of her throat, curled and dusted with homespun innocence. “Turtle Dove” ripples along like a traditional deep-woods hymn, while “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” (a cover of a 1974 Richard Thompson tune) filters through glowing honky tonk neon. “You’ll be the only one whose cross you can not bare,” she weeps on “That’s All Right,” a spooky, church-like chant. “Honey, I don’t mind / You won’t be wasting one more second of my time…”
Letters Never Read is the mark of a restless, troubled heart that peels back on honesty, lovelorn ecstasy and achingly raw hardship. Freeman, who embodies the Appalachian spirit down to her elongated aw-shucks twang, treads thoughtfully on weary feet and plants herself as one of today’s more exciting players, alongside folks like Sam Outlaw, Carrie Elkin, Lillie Mae, Kasey Chambers, Erin Enderlin and Jason Eady.
Freeman is always thrilling, never disappointing.
Grade: 4.5 out of 5
Photo Credit: Kristen Horton