MOUNTAIN MUSIC: The Freight Hoppers get back on track
Wednesday, 08 June 2011 16:06
There’s something about a train that ignites a flurry of imagery, conjuring up spirits of days gone by, a moving story, methodically chugging across this great land of ours with the intent of delivering people and goods to their expected destinations. Nestled in the heart of the Smokies, Bryson City, N.C., is home to not only the historic Great Smoky Mountain Railroad but also one the most exciting string bands that have ever jumped a train, The Freight Hoppers.
The band has returned from a long break with an eagerly anticipated and stellar new album, Mile Marker, on Bake Tone Records, which is filled with songs first recorded at the height of railroading around the early half of the 20th century. The Freight Hoppers interpretation of classic old-timey favorites continues a tradition that purists will certainly appreciate while encouraging a new generation of music lovers to come along for the ride.The story of the railroad in far parts of Western North Carolina begins in 1880 when the first line west of Asheville began operating. The Murphy Branch Line opened the world to those secluded in the mountains and offered outsiders a chance to benefit from the region’s resources. By the early part of the 20th century track mileage was at its peak (over 250,000 miles), and depots, terminals, stations, and famous passenger trains were the talk of the town, edging their way into local folklore with the stories that rode in and rode out with each passing train.
For traveling musicians, panhandlers, and just ordinary folks looking to make a few pennies, stops along the railroad were perfect places to set up, jam a few tunes, and make some change. During the early 1900s, six train trains were running between Asheville and Lake Junaluska and another four from Murphy to Asheville. The rise of railroad music was an unintended consequence of development and gave a voice to those often unheard locals confronted with economic, environmental, and cultural change over which they had little control. All along the lines, pickers, strummers, callers, musicians of all types played for the new railroad patrons all over Western North Carolina. The Freight Hoppers are not unlike the folk troubadours and string bands of yesterday that lived with the railroad as a fundamental influence and an integral part of their story.
Like a train, The Freight Hoppers carry that story with them. It’s both moving and unrelenting; their music seamlessly transitions between old-timey, bluegrass, and Appalachian folk. The Southern presence is felt in every song. Founding members David Bass and Frank Lee have been playing together for nearly 20 years. Taking a job in 1993 to play for tourists while riding along the celebrated Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, the Bass and Lee fiddle-banjo combo gave birth to The Freight Hoppers name.
Their ascension to fame and notoriety among the bluegrass/old-time concert and festival circuit soon followed. Fans of The Freight Hoppers will remember their previous two releases on the reputable roots-music label, Rounder Records, Where’d You Come From, Where’d You Go in 1996 and Waiting on the Gravy Train in 1998. Originally accompanied by Cary Fridley on vocals and guitar, along with an assortment of upright bass players on the first two albums, the band came to a sobering crossroad in 1999 when Fridley left the band to continue a solo career.
With the arrival of his first child, Bass decided to take some time off from the band as well. A medical condition then forced a tough decision for him, and The Freight Hoppers stopped making music as Bass recuperated. Finally in 2007, with Bass’s health in check and Lee’s desire to tour and record music stronger than ever, the group reformed with an impressive rhythm section. Well-known guitarist and vocalist Isaac Deal and equally notable upright bass player Bradley Adams joined the band. Both have called Western North Carolina home for many years and are well educated in the Southern Appalachian musical stylings that originally made The Freight Hoppers a great band.
For those reasons, “Mile Marker” is a comeback of sorts. While the band’s absence was understandable, it’s clear the time away has invigorated all of the members. Recorded at the Rubber Room Studio in Chapel Hill, N.C., the album gets off to a rousing start with “Been to the East Been to the West,” a song first recorded in 1928 by the Leake County Revelers. The tune features a sweet fiddle line that Bass conquers like he’s been playing it all his life. The band’s groove begins to move into a slow waltzy-sway with the high and lonesome singing on “I Saw a Man at the Close of the Day,” a classic tale of what happens when drinking gets a hold of a family. “Lost Indian,” a familiar festival favorite, gets the picking and fiddling paired perfectly; dancing to this one is highly recommended. Keeping up with the train songs, “The Train That Carried My Gal From Town” is one exception to the rule that everybody loves a train—the storyteller is fit to be tied when he realizes that he’s been done wrong when he proclaims: “There goes that train, somebody bring it back\ that gal got her hand in my money-sack.”
The Freight Hoppers can spin a yarn with the veracity and speed of a charging train, or slow it down with that Southern ease that is both elusive and captivating. For this band, it seems more important to know where their sound comes from rather than where the journey is headed.
To order Mile Marker visit thefreighthoppers.com