In a healthier world, country singer Dori Freeman would have just played a concert in Charlottesville and would still be touring in support of last fall’s album, “Every Single Star.” Instead, she’s back home in Southwest Virginia and putting out even more music in the form of an encouraging EP.
Going home isn’t really hardship for Freeman. While she found success with her eponymous album in 2016, she decided to stick to her home in Galax, an area known for its old-time music and its instrument-making. Freeman finds plenty of personal support in the area, too, including her songwriting family members — father Scott Freeman and grandfather Willard Gayheart. She’s also drawn support from legendary luthier Wayne Henderson.
“He made a guitar for me almost 10 years ago,” Freeman said. “He was one of my first big encouragers aside from my family. He was always trying to get me to sing in front of more people because I was really shy about that. He decided to build that guitar for me, and that was a pretty big confidence booster.”
Freeman stays in the region not just for these immediate connections, but also to be part of her broader community.
“Appalachia is really important to me,” she explained. I grew up in not a wealthy family. The music is so important. I’ve lived a few other places, but I keep coming back here. I feel drawn to this place. It’s important to be a young person and a progressive person and not just be in the city. It’s a good thing to have progressive people in the country to help shape what the future of ‘country’ and ‘rural’ means. I want to stand for what I do and still be a country person. It doesn’t have to be a stereotype.”
The region, country to popular belief, isn’t a monolithic entity, and Freeman provides a valuable voice for her area.
“The biggest way I try to be a voice for my community is through my music and my songwriting,” she explained. “The arts and music have always been powerful forms of change. By living here and making music that’s heard, I do have a voice. I want to be a part of the progressive, rural country voice.”
That voice, at least as it comes from the studio-revealed side, was heard on March 20, when Freeman released a surprise EP titled “Heavenly Sunlight.” Where her previous releases tended more toward Nashville and classic songwriting without leaving the mountains, this disc cleanly shows her Appalachian gospel side.
The music began as part of a Kickstarter campaign; with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Freeman saw a few reasons to give it a proper release.
“It made financial sense for me, because I lost two solid months of gigs,” Freeman said. “And the other reason is that gospel music is really uplifting and positive. It’s something that people can listen to at a time like this and maybe get a little bit of relief or a little bit of hope from it.”
Now at home, Freeman is “trying to focus on my family right now.”
For fans, that sort of focus makes sense. As much as Freeman’s musical past connects to her family of origin, her future sounds linked to her current family. She can still sing heartbreak as well as anyone, but now she’s happily married to her drummer, Nick Falk.
“Nick and I are really lucky that we get along well enough to both live with each other and work together,” she laughed. “It’s nice to have someone to travel with.”
Travel can be tricky for a musical family, though, and Freeman spoken on how little the music industry talks about working motherhood. Freeman has a 6-year-old daughter, and on her last album she addressed the challenge of leaving your child at home on the track “I’ll Be Home.”
Freeman speaks happily of a change she sees where festivals like Red Wing Roots and the Festy Experience are now providing childcare for musicians. Having people who can safely watch your kids “makes all the difference,” especially for mothers, and Freeman would be happy to see that idea spread.
Parenthood finds its way into Freeman’s songwriting, too, as on her recent song “Like I Do.” Freeman writes about her daughter “whenever it strikes me.”
“The last record, those two [songs about her daughter] were very personal and particular,” she said. “I wanted people to understand that [parenthood] is a big part of my life. It’s something I want to continue to have be a big part of my music.”
Freeman typically writes as inspired.
“I just write when I come up with an idea, from anything or anywhere,” Freeman explained. “I’m not someone who can say, ‘Tomorrow, we’re going to sit down from this hour to this hour and write.’ Everything I’ve written under those circumstances has felt really forced and not very good. I’m resigned to the fact that I have to write whenever the feeling strikes me. I’ll go months at a time without writing.”
The arrival of Freeman’s next song might be unpredictable, but that only feels in line with the world right now. More steadily, though, she’ll be playing concerts online, offering pay-what-you-want Facebook shows, but with Falk and with her dad and grandpa (the latter shows highlighting more traditional music). She’ll keep them up on Facebook indefinitely. Much about the future might be uncertain, but at least we can hear some deep roots in this new era.