Hop to It

The musicians in the Freight Hoppers are on the right track.

Of all the groups now enjoying success in the Americana format, the Freight Hoppers may be the most backward-looking. Unlike those red-white-and-blue acts that specialize in vintage forms of country, Western swing and bluegrass, the Hoppers focus on a far more dated sound: old-time string-band music circa the 1800s. But while guitarist/vocalist Cary Fridley believes that this North Carolina quartet's straight-from-the-holler approach is almost entirely free of contemporary touches, she concedes that that opinion is not universally shared.

"We get a lot of flak from old-time-music enthusiasts," notes Fridley, who is joined in the combo by fiddler David Bass, claw-hammer banjoist/ vocalist Frank Lee, and Greg Howell, who recently replaced James O'Keefe on the stand-up bass. "They say, 'You guys sound like a rock band trying to play old-time. It's not traditional what you're doing, and yet you call yourself an old-time band.' Well, I don't know what it is we're doing, but apparently there's some stuff in there that sounds a little bluesy or rock-and-roll that has something to do with all of those influences that we all can't hide from."

Listeners unfamiliar with old-time music might make the same assumption given the band's careening approach to yesterday--a headlong sensibility that emphasizes forward motion over historical accuracy and picking perfection. But according to Fridley, wannabe flat-footers who consider the Hoppers' manic energy to be a modern touch are mistaken. "The music we like is from before bluegrass was conceived. And there were bands back then that were just like us; they went crazy and were entertainers and played with the same kind of energy. Those are the bands we like and listen to, and I can tell you that we're not consciously trying to add to something old and say, 'Let's make this new' or 'Let's play this five times as fast.'"

Gid Tanner & His Skillet Lickers, one of the Hoppers' musical touchstones, was "a punk band if I ever heard one," Fridley says. "And if people would get to know the music of the bands that are our heroes--groups like the Skillet Lickers and the Carter Family--they'd see that what we have in common with these guys is our approach to the music. We really let it all hang out. It's almost falling apart, but it's holding together at the same time. It's kind of a nothing-to-lose attitude rather than playing it note for note like the record."

The outfit's retro-credible spirit is echoed in its origins. Back in 1993, Lee was playing for tourists at a scenic railroad stop in the North Carolina portion of the Great Smoky Mountains National Forest alongside a singer-songwriter into modern sounds. But before long, this onetime busker and participant in the region's traditional scene was adding old-time tunes to the duo's playlist--and when his partner stepped aside, he turned back the musical clock even further. Shortly after recruiting Bass and Fridley, who was then a high-school music teacher, the Freight Hoppers were off and rolling.

"It was great," Fridley says about the Smoky Mountains gig, which lasted for several years. "We had three shows a day, sometimes six days a week, and it was like boot camp. We learned what the crowd liked, we learned what they laughed at and which tunes worked. And we got to practice in front of a crowd three times a day, and we got to the point where we could tell what anybody was going to do."

Such stage-tested telepathy is in full view on 1998's Waiting on the Gravy Train, a Rounder Records release whose highballing excitement is stoked by whoop-it-up tunes and instrumentals that quickly call the band's homeland to mind. The musicians race through "Nobody's Business," "Wild Fling in the Woodpile," "Shortenin' Bread" and other high-speed gems marked by hog-wild playing and dense arrangements. In between these romps, the Hoppers catch their breath on backwoods laments and burlap ballads that feature Fridley's achy vocals and Lee's trembling fiddle weeps.

"It's all about the very basics," Fridley says. "You've got a tune and rhythmic consistency, and you don't want to do anything that detracts from that incessant rhythm, whether it's fast or slow or whatever. Anything that draws attention away from the wholeness of the sound is not what you want to do. If you want to solo, somebody's going to move your chair when you go to the bathroom so there's nowhere for you to sit when you come back. In other words, solos aren't there--and that probably has a lot to do with why old-timers and bluegrassers run in different circles."

Like the band's first CD, 1996's Where'd You Come From, Where'd You Go, the latest effort features no contemporary compositions: Every song is a dusty standard from way back when. Fridley offers a simple reason for this covers-only song list. "We have yet to find a tune or song that you can't tell was written in the twentieth century," she says. "The new songs and tunes don't sound the same as the old tunes and the things we love about old-time music. Who knows why? If I ever hear one that moves me like the old ones do, I'll be all over wanting to play it, but it hasn't happened yet.

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