Hop to It

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.

"There must be something about the motivation of these songs and where they came from," she adds. "It's not like people sat down and tried to write them. They just came out of them. And it wasn't a huge deal if somebody wrote a song or was a good player. It was just a part of everyday life--and the songs that were good kept getting played and kept getting sung, and those are the ones that stood the test of time over a hundred years. To wake up one day and try to write a song like that is hard to do and pretty big shoes to fill. We've tried, but it hasn't happened yet. I guess it sounds snobby and close-minded, but, oh, well. So be it."

Fortunately, the Freight Hoppers' live sets dispel any appearance of snootiness. "I jump around all crazy when we play," Fridley says, "and David eats fire while he's playing the fiddle. It's not that big a part of our show anymore, because the promoters all go, 'Ahhh! We don't have enough fire extinguishers. It's not in the contract.' But when we play out in the street, David likes to get out the old fire stick. It's in the spirit of the old vaudeville entertainers who would barnstorm small towns. Going out on a limb to entertain people--the Freight Hoppers are really into that kind of stuff."

Mid-Winter Bluegrass Festival, featuring Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, Dry Branch Fire Squad, New Tradition, the Freight Hoppers, Second Exit, the Bluegrass Patriots, the Sitze Family, High Plains Tradition, Bill Evans, the Bluegrass Pals, Gary Cook, Lucille Hinds, Liz Masterson and Sean Blackburn, Steve Smith and Charlie Provenza. Friday through Sunday, February 12-14, Holiday Inn, Northglenn, $15-$20, three-day pass $40, 303-452-4100.

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