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The Cary Fridley Band with the Atomic City Rhythm Rascals

Saturday, Jan. 20 at 9 p.m.

The Pilot Light

How Much:$5 and only those 18 and over will be admitted.

Banjo Picking Girl

Modern songstress finds her niche in old-time tunes

by Joe Tarr

There's a common notion in today's pop music that what is most genuine or heartfelt is what comes from your own heart and head. Singer-songwriters are regarded as an earnest lot, and self-expression bestows a kind of integrity on a performer—a sense that this is real.

Cary Fridley doesn't much care to write or perform her own songs, not now anyways. It's not that she can't, but there's something about the old-timey music of the Appalachians that seems more genuine. Instead, she's been mining the field recordings and 78s from the late '20s and early '30s for songs to record.

"People are always asking me, when are you going to write your songs. I'm always kind of stumped. I used to write songs," says Fridley, a former member of the defunct Freight Hoppers who recently recorded her first solo CD. "I feel like this old stuff—it's music and somebody wrote it, but you can't really compare the two.

"I feel like I'm more of a channel," she adds.

Growing up in Virginia, Fridley had always been attracted to old-time music. "I just always liked the old way of doing things. I liked old people and the way they talked. I just thought it was neat, the old country thing," she says.

Her dad used to take her to bluegrass shows, and she began playing banjo in high school and has been hooked ever since.

Listening to old records of the late '20s and early '30s—when recording technology improved enough to allow mass distribution—can have an ethereal effect on modern listeners. It sounds as though you're sweeping the basement to discover the dirt floor that all of modern pop music is founded on. But in fact, these musicians are building on and manipulating many songs that had been around for generations, some of the ballads having traveled across the Atlantic from the Old World. Others were passed back and forth between the nebulous genres, as various artists added their own twists.

Perhaps more importantly, music in the early 20th century wasn't something you bought at a store or passively received at a concert, but something everyone helped create in some way. It was less an art of individualism and more a communal experience.

"The minute they started recording it and the radio came around, it just changed the way people felt. You could kind of freeze time and study [the music], and listen so much more critically. And then you could compare it. It just changed the way people sang and looked at it.

"In the old days everybody used to play and sing. Once people became able to pay attention and listen to [music], people became shy. Just being OK with who you are, and now people kind of miss that, and the beauty of the everyday simple stuff.

"Old-time music, for just an hour or two, you can say, 'Let's just stop and breathe.'"

Fridley says part of the reason she's turned to these old, nearly forgotten songs is there's something in them she can't get from modern music or from writing her own songs.

"It's something outside yourself, whereas with a lot of singer-songwriters, it's self-expression. I kind of feel this old-timey music is celebrating the humanity we all have in common," she says.

After performing with the Freight Hoppers for about five years, Fridley struck out on her own in 1999 with the Cary Fridley Band, which includes Trevor Stewart on fiddle, his twin brother Travis on bass, and Barry Benjamin on banjo and vocals. Fridley sings lead and plays guitar. Her soon-to-be-released debut Neighbor Girl (recorded with a variety of musicians, including fiddler Art Stamper of Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys), includes early bluegrass tunes by Flatt and Scruggs, as well as songs by the Carter Family, the Coon Creek Girls, and some songs heard on North Carolina field recordings.

The songs she selected have somewhat of a feminist bent—on "Banjo Picking Girl," she sings of wanting to go to North Carolina, Cuba and China, then admonishes her lover, "So if you ain't got no money baby mine...get yourself a new honey, I'm going around this world baby mine."

The tunes were selected not so much from a political agenda but a desire to sing songs she could relate to. "I used to try to sing Hank Williams' songs, and was like, 'I cannot sing that—it's a masculine point of view. It's not me.' I guess it's just trying to be honest and really believe in it."

But all this talk about history, community and pre-modern days can make it seem like old-time music is some sacred thing that belongs in a museum. In fact, old-time music shows can be rollicking affairs.

What may be most important about old-time music is, as Fridley says, "It's really danceable too. It's just fun."

January 18, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 3
© 2001 Metro Pulse