Thursday, April 7, 2011
SCOTT FREEMAN MASTER MUSICIAN
Curiously, I've not written you about Scott Freeman at any length. It must be that I take it for granted he's a musician as good as a musician gets, an artist with his music, plays old-time and bluegrass with equal affection. Scott is a musician other musicians love to make music with. He's got good timing, he's a master musician, and a gentleman musician generous with the spotlight. He pays attention to what the musicians he's making music with are doing and falls in with their flow. I don't like to play the better and best game, but Scott can be said without fear of contradiction by any musician in SW Virginia to be among the very best. Among. Like Scott said when I said to him that his band Alternate Roots is a good band, "There's a lot of good bands." He's right. There's an awful lot of good bands. At the Front Porch we've been hearing good bands every week for a year. And that's just a little bit of it. The Rex Theater plays a good band every week of every year. And that's just around here. I've thought of that many times since Scott said it.
This afternoon I saw a film, Winter's Bone, which takes place in the Missouri Ozarks, way up in a holler that could be called Wrong Turn. At one point in the film a local old-time band was playing, evidently a band from the location of the filming. Good fiddler and a good singer. Another good band. Friday night Scott, his daughter Dori and Edwin Lacy insisted I see this film. I'd just put it at the top of the netflix Q the day before. It arrived today. Serious story about people into crystal meth labs and such as that. Ozark hillbillies. The kind of place good music comes out of.
There's so much about Scott's musicianship to be said, it's hard to find a place to start. The mandolin is his primary instrument. A few years ago when the band of his brothers, Pathway, was getting going, Scott was brushing up on his fiddle and played fiddler's conventions for a couple years and brought home a lot of first place ribbons. His fiddle is right there with his mandolin. He plays a guitar too, such that you have a hard time believing it's his "least" instrument. He won't even say he can play the banjo, but he can. He's just not a master on it, so he won't play it out in the open. One thing he can do in this world is smoke a mandolin. He's good enough a musician to be with any of the chart bluegrass bands if he wanted to be. He likes living at home, prefers the hometown circuit to the life on a tour bus circuit. Scott and Willard have made music together over 20 years.
Their first band together was Skeeter and the Skidmarks with Edwin Lacy on the banjo and Sandy playing bass. They made two albums with Hay Holler Records in Roanoke, Hubbin It and Alternate Roots. Two classic albums. I think they were dated 1994 and 96. They've been called progressive old-time and I can't find a better name for how they'd be categorized. There is a certain sound that happens when these people get together to make music. It's unique. There came a time Edwin had to go away and there was no more Skeeter. Scott and Willard got up with Randy Pasley and Katy Taylor and made Alternate Roots. Steve Lewis came in with his banjo on their last 2 albums. The band has the Freeman / Gayheart sound that was in Skeeter, though with a more bluegrass sound played, like Skeeter, with masterful musicianship. Randy Pasley's dobro brought in a new sound for Scott and Willard to make music with. And Katy's stellar bluegrass voice gave the band a sound distinctly its own. Scott and Katy were the lead singers for the band, Willard singing 2 or 3 songs per album and concert. The first time I heard Catfish John was when Willard sang it at an Alternate Roots concert.
Scott has a sound that is his own, not only vocally, but the way he plays a tune makes it his own. He takes command of every tune he plays, plays it perfectly in line with the tune itself, while hopping around, skipping notes, adding flourishes, doing the sorts of things jazz musicians do improvising on a tune. Scott's feet are firmly planted in the tradition, but up in his head and his heart he makes jazz of traditional music. Bill Monroe jazzed old-time one way for his own style at his beginning, no idea it would become a genre with a name. Scott is jazzing old-time and traditional songs his own way. He gives every song he plays the Freeman sound. He's recorded project after project, 2 with Skeeter, 4 with Alternate Roots, 2 with Hungry Hash House Ramblers, 3 solo projects I can think of. He's on Steve Lewis's album Appalachian Rain. He won the first Wayne Henderson music festival mandolin competition. And much more.
Scott's bands are not ones to indulge in playing crowd pleasing music. These people are artists. They don't "light up the banjer" and don't play Rocky Top. They don't fire up the audience. They just play some very respectable music that gets better the closer you listen to it. All the people in bands Scott makes music with are introspective artist musicians. The musicians are all interested in being the best they can be on their instrument, continually pushing for improvement, they compose songs, and they take the music seriously. They take their music quite seriously. This evening on the classical station I heard the dj introducing something composed for a banjo by so and so called such and such. She said, "The banjo is not a serious instrument." I thought: tell that to Edwin Lacy, tell it to Steve Lewis, tell it to Emily Spencer, tell it to Riley Baugus, tell it to Kevin Fore. Nobody seems to have told them. As many hours and years as they've put into playing a banjo, it's all been playing and it's all been fun, but it's not an iota less than a viola or an oboe in a symphony when it comes to serious. It may not be music for the ruling class, but it's serious as it gets when it comes to making music. Music is music.
I have to say I listen to Alternate Roots with the same enjoyment I listen to the Alban Berg Quartet. Both groups are made up of superb, serious musicians in their genres. The musicians in the Alban Berg Quartet are master musicians in their approach to Dvorjak, and Alternate Roots was master musicians in their approach to some of Scott Freeman's compositions. First one to come to mind was Out Of The Blue, with Katy Taylor singing it. I claim it for one of my favorite songs up there with Hazel Dickens singing West Virginia My Home. Like Scott said, there's a lot of good bands. And his bands are among the lotta good ones. One thing I've respected in Scott the whole time I've known him is his integrity where his art form is concerned. His artistry is for the music itself. It's not that he wants to be a star on the Grand Ole Opry or even get on the bluegrass charts. He's totally involved with his music. He's composing so many songs over the years, all of them really good songs, he could put together a couple cds by now of his own compositions. On the radio show one Saturday I played all songs composed by Scott. It made a good hour. One of the really good hours, the kind that while it's going on, I'm loving it.