A Voice Like a Church Bell
Appalachian folk pop singer Dori Freeman’s voice is a stunner. And her songs, like that voice, rise from her deep roots in the Virginia mountains.
Her singing is the first thing that strikes you. Dori Freeman’s voice possesses a rare clarity, carrying to one’s ear like the sound of a church bell ringing out across a snowy valley. Her phrasing is an exercise in emotions, pulling back at just the right moment, pushing forth to build the tension, always drawing the listener near.
That exquisite voice delivers an unusual blend of her rural, working-class roots and the pop music she grew up on. Freeman’s music has always been deeply influenced by her Appalachian upbringing. She was raised in a musical family in the mountains of southwestern Virginia in Galax (pronounced Gay-lax), a geographic and cultural center of the region known for old-time music and the creation of traditional instruments. The annual Old Fiddler’s Convention has been held there since 1935. That culture is evident in her singing, but so is a modern sensibility that makes for a vibrant, original sound.
During a recent gig that packed the storied bar The Station Inn in Nashville, those vocals entranced the normally rowdy crowd so much that no one spoke. All eyes were fixed on Freeman and Nicholas Falk, Freeman’s husband and musical partner, who lent the set a palpable energy with his background vocals and the pleasing rhythm he provided on his drum kit. They are both small in stature and quiet people by nature, but together they make a mighty sound that entranced the audience. The room was badly lit with bright fluorescent lights but Freeman and Falk created an intimate atmosphere that put the emphasis completely on their music. Only occasionally did Freeman break the spell to introduce a song quietly, which she did with a sweet demeanor that seemed bashful, almost apologetic for interrupting the music. Clearly Freeman wanted everything in the set to be in service to the music.
Watching her perform, I saw clearly that she and the music were all tangled up. There was no separating her from the songs she sings. There was little division between her and Falk, too. On stage they fed off one another almost telepathically.
Before the show, in a conversation at a restaurant near the Country Music Hall of Fame, Freeman and Falk had a similar dynamic. They finished each other’s sentences but rarely interrupted one another, exhibiting a mutual respect that appears to serve their musical and romantic partnership well.
Freeman and Falk have been a couple for seven years and have always created music together, but Falk, who often tours as a percussionist with Hiss Golden Messenger, Caamp, and other acts, took on a bigger role in Freeman’s music-making with her last two albums, which the couple has co-produced. Before that, Freeman’s previous three studio albums were all produced by Teddy Thompson, who not only has his own vibrant career as a singer-songwriter but has also produced albums for his mother, the English folk legend Linda Thompson, plus Alabama sisters Allison Moorer and Shelby Lynne. Thompson signed on to produce Dori Freeman (2016), her first studio album, after she reached out to him via Facebook. Since then, her popularity has steadily grown as she’s earned acclaim from the likes of NPR, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times. One of her songs from the debut, “You Say,” now has over six million streams on Spotify alone. Thompson says Freeman’s voice is “purity itself. She sings from the heart with no affectation.” He was immediately impressed by her songwriting as well. “The songs are equally unadulterated. They are spare and honest and stay with you.”
Freeman says she had a crash course in learning how to make music and produce albums by working with Thompson on her first three albums.
“Especially the first one, in a massive way, because I’d never been in a big studio like that with a band of musicians who were there just to play on someone else’s record,” Freeman says. “That was my first real time in New York City. It was a lot of firsts for me. That whole first album was a huge learning experience.”
She is putting that knowledge—and her trust in Falk—to use with a new album, Do You Recall, which is due out November 17. It's a collection of eleven precise, hook-laden tracks that operate much like a selection of short stories peering into the lives of everyday people who are experiencing tremendous emotions.
Freeman and Falk both say her songs on previous albums came more from personal experiences, while these are often from multiple points of view. While Freeman thinks of this album as a continuation of her previous album, Ten Thousand Roses, she also believes that her music is continuing to complexify.
“Sonically I think Do You Recall is…more electric, grittier,” she says.
Falk says the new album is heavier on electric guitars and contains “more layers,” including Freeman’s first inclusion of programmed drum loops, to which Freeman loved singing.
The couple say they’ve enjoyed making music even more now that they have their own studio, which Falk built during the pandemic at their home in the mountains of Galax.
“It’s one 200-square-foot room with sixteen-foot-high ceilings, which is nice for drum sounds especially, and gives it a natural sound,” Falk says, growing more animated as he explains. “It’s cool that we could just go out there for an hour or two a day for weeks. We didn’t have to do seven-hour, ten-hour days,” Falk says, referring to the rigorous schedules they had to keep in the past when they were renting studio time from others.
“My parents are close by, my grandpa—who I’m really close to and is ninety-one—lives close by.... I like to visit cities but I think there’s something about them that is a little soul-sucking after a while.… I prefer the mountains; they make me feel at home.”
Having control over her music—and its production—allows Freeman the freedom to stay planted in Virginia, instead of moving to Nashville. In Music City, she might have more opportunities to share her work, but she says the trade-off is worth it. One of the best parts is being near her family.
“My parents are close by, my grandpa—who I’m really close to and is ninety-one—lives close by,” she says. “I feel really attached to the area. I like to visit cities but I think there’s something about them that is a little soul-sucking after a while.… I prefer the mountains; they make me feel at home.” Freeman also loves that her family still plays music together, including her banjo-playing grandfather, whom she says remains “sharp as a tack.”
Staying near to home has certainly led to a nuanced album that is equal parts rocking, pensive, profound, and fun. The title song focuses on a character delighting in the contentment of a long-time love while “Wrong Direction” and “Good Enough” (with dreamy background vocals by Thompson) question if a relationship is going to last. Also in that vein is “Rid My Mind,” with its wonderful wordplay: “Did you lie next to me/in more ways than one?” Songs like “Soup Beans, Milk, and Bread” and “They Do It’s True” critique a culture and system that sacrifice Appalachian people while also providing memorable images: “black snake out in the yard/copperhead in the Capitol courtyard” in the former song and “Floods keep on churning/Washing up the old gravestones” in the latter. Freeman admits that she’s writing more songs with social commentary about her home region these days.
“People have certain ideas of what it means to be Appalachian and I just want to be not the example but one example of what that looks like, so that’s what I wrote about on this record,” she says.
In “Why Do I Do This to Myself” a character questions her own judgment against rollicking guitars that would be at home in a Linda Ronstadt song. There’s a character who daydreams of romance with a matinee idol (and perhaps a new life) in “Movie Screen.” “River Runs” and “Laundromat” celebrate the magic of ordinary days while the album closer, “Gonna Be a Good Time” is a tender, jaunty love song that is perfect for a singalong.
“People have certain ideas of what it means to be Appalachian and I just want to be not the example but one example of what that looks like, so that’s what I wrote about on this record.”
All the songs could be documents of the small-town, working-class life that is rarely seen in contemporary media. They were all written by Freeman except for “River Runs” and “Gonna Be a Good Time” which she cowrote with Falk. All the tracks are also all around three minutes, which has become one of Freeman’s trademarks as a writer. Her songs also are more uptempo and contain memorable hooks, all reasons that her work could accurately be called “folk pop.” Some people might sneer at this suggestion but Freeman considers it a compliment, saying pop is definitely one of her favorite genres.
Falk agrees. “Her songs are catchy, with super strong choruses, and the melodies are memorable, but there is definitely the country influence, too.”
“I grew up in a musical family, but my dad also played music around the house all the time, on his record player,” Freeman says. “I listened to tons of different types of stuff. I was in choir all throughout school. I think all those things shaped the style of music that I sing and write.”
People who hear Dori Freeman sing always comment on her stunning, pitch-perfect vocal delivery. That voice is so commanding and mesmerizing that it’s sometimes easy to overlook the precision and power of her songwriting. Do You Recall contains some of the best songs she’s ever written and is sure to bring her words more attention. But always there is that voice, which can silence a rowdy bar in The Gulch, a jaded Nashville neighborhood, or anywhere she and Falk travel to share their Appalachian folk pop magic.
Silas House is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of seven novels, including Lark Ascending, which won the 2023 Southern Book Prize. As a music journalist he has profiled artists such as Lucinda Williams, Kacey Musgraves, Tyler Childers, Jason Isbell, and many others. Recently he has been published in Time, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and many other publications. He currently serves as the poet laureate for the Commonwealth of Kentucky.