Women Making MusicCary Fridley – A Deeply Rooted Appalachian Bonnie


By Peggy Ratusz


Not many of us can trace our roots back to the 18th century like Cary Fridley can. Her lineage is filled with a combination of artistic history aficionados, musicians, forerunners and highly educated ancestors. For example, the Smithsonian History of Folk Music was a five-album collection her father bought during her childhood on which she thrived. She credits him with opening her mind to all kinds of music and for helping her realize how vital music, music history and education are, especially to a person born and raised in rural Covington, Virginia. Her mom and dad never let her miss a concert coming through the area.


Photo By Sandlin Gaither

Photo By Sandlin Gaither

“In poverty stricken Appalachia, people do what they can to bring culture to the mountains and we had an exceptional Arts Council that attained funding to bring music to the area. When I got to go see a string quartet, for instance, it was like a beacon from the outer world. It was ingrained in us that the opportunity to hear live musicians was an incredibly special thing that we were taught to see as a privilege.”


Her maternal great grandfather, William, was a Scottish immigrant, wood carver and piano player who was one of the last surviving carvers of mast heads onto wooden ships. When they stopped making wooden ships, he came to America and worked in the ship yards in Newport News, VA. Her mother’s father, Kelvin in turn grew up to work in the ship yard and was one of the first recipients of a scholarship to attain an engineering degree.


Cary possesses and cherishes recordings of her great grandfather playing piano at family holiday parties where everyone would gather round and sing church songs. William was the choir director at church and was blessed with a beautiful singing voice. The diversity of his interests and his ability to lead and love are traits that were absolutely passed down to this, our Asheville treasure, Cary Fridley.


Her paternal great grandmother, Alva, from Roanoke, used to sing to her as a child and later lived with her family in Covington. Her grandmother, her great aunt and her great aunt’s mother used to live across the street. “These three little old ladies lived right across the street and I would go over to their house after school and eat homemade cookies.” Her paternal grandfather Harrison Fridley Sr., oldest of 14 children who died when she was seven years old, played saxophone in an oompah band and was the town’s pharmacist. “He’d play with his brass band under the town square’s pavilion at fairs and stuff.” While the little old ladies promoted the prayer meetin’ tunes and loved to hear her sing and play piano in church, the secular music of the mountains flowed in her blood as well.


Cary’s father, Harrison Jr., who took over the pharmacy from his father, never realized his dream of proficiency on the banjo so when he noticed her intrigue over the instrument, he promptly arranged for lessons and started dropping her off at a weekly jam, where the old timers taught her to play and encouraged her to sing. At 12 years of age, this forerunner was playing music with men who’d never played with a female, yet alone with a young and inspired little girl.


Years go by and while one dream of playing the flute was crushed, it facilitated her degree in Music Education and forced her into other instruments enabling her to become the well-rounded Bluegrass, Old Time, Country Blues and early Jazz musician and vocalist she is today. It gave her more geographic choices as well. She moved to teach high school music for one year and then moved again to begin her infamous stint playing guitar with the Freight Hoppers. She toured for six years with the most popular string band of the 1990’s which she explains “was like being in grad school for guitar chords.”


She moved to Asheville and took up the bass, her preferred instrument right now. Musical experimentation has always been Cary’s strong suit and passion. The many bands she currently fronts or co-fronts and those over the past nearly two decades, include The Freight Hoppers, The Low Down Travelers, Down South, The Swayback Sisters, and most recently the Asheville Aces. Each groups repertoire lending to the other, while exploring new territory and songwriting. Always one to honor those who came before her, you hear her influences in most everything she’s written and recorded: Memphis Minnie, Kitty Wells, Ola Belle Reed, Maybelle Carter, Emmy Lou Harris and Alison Krause. However, there is nary a review out there that doesn’t mention the authenticity of her signature, unique and rooted vocal style. The comfort, the pain, the joy, the promise, the spirit are all there in her thoughtful selections and effortless songwriting.


Neighbor Girl was released in 2001 and is a collection of old time mountain music with fiddler Art Stamper, Larry Perkins on Banjo, Jake Owen on claw hammer banjo, and more. It’s described as “Soulful singing of traditional mountain ballads, old-time harmonies, classic bluegrass, Southern Appalachian and traditional music.”


Her second solo record, Down South, released in 2007, is where her signature country voice evokes centuries of southern country voices, combining the honesty of folk music with the bluesy Americana groove of Asheville, North Carolina. It is described thusly: “Her natural affinity for folk music and her ability to reach the heart and soul of an audience is evidenced in her show and in this CD.”


Fare You Well is an Americana album from 2009 produced by Seth Kaufman, the mastermind behind tropical-pop band Floating Action. He brings his “use of vintage equipment and his signature low-fi recording approach (which) gives Fridley’s old-school country ballads (“Fare You Well,” “Follow the Spark”) and bluesy romps (“Baby I Can See,” “Been Untrue”) the feel of coming from a bygone era.” She says of this record, that “many of the tunes came to me almost effortlessly, as if I was simply transcribing songs I’d heard played on Madison County porches many times before.”


Her newest CD release, Rainbow Mist, North Carolina Ballads and Love Songs was recorded at Echo Mountain Recording Studio featuring Laura Blackley, Travis Stuart and Mary Ellen Davis. This release is inspired by the “true lineage of ballad singers from Madison County, NC.” On Thursday, April 3rd there will be a square dance and CD release of this record at Cork & Keg at The Weinhaus, 86 Patton Avenue in downtown Asheville, starting at 7p.m.


She’ll also be playing string bass with The Gamblers, a “good time dance band that indulges in an eclectic picnic of early American Jazz and Roots music styles” featuring Whitney Moore at Southern Appalachian Brewery in Hendersonville starting at 8p.m. on Friday, April 4th.


On Saturday, April 5th, The Asheville Aces – a pre-war electric Blues trio she recently started with Scott Sharpe on guitar and Luke Wood on drums will be at the Green Room in downtown Asheville, 12 Church Street starting at 8p.m.. They’ll also be at Black Mountain Ale House in downtown Black Mountain on Saturday, April 12th from 9p.m.-11p.m.


From there she hits the road with the Aces for a short tour down the coast. You can keep up with her schedule in two places on the internet: caryfridleymusic.com and www.reverbnation.com/AshevilleAces.


I can’t forget to tell you all that I’ve watched people go from frown to smile, when they hear her make one of the most joyful noises you’ll ever hear in a laugh. This easy going, articulate, versatile, affable multi-instrumentalist, singing and songwriting bonnie, is right here for our enjoyment. Your support of Cary and all the women making music profiled in this magazine is a gift you give yourself. Get off the couch and get to her CD release show, folks! Every mile of her journey, all the poignant, melancholy ruts in her road, all the rainbows and daffodils, all the artists whom she admires most, will emerge. Cary will be there holdin’ the bucket to the water well that’ll quench your thirst, that sittin on the couch can’t allow you to even know you have!



Peggy Ratusz is a Blues/Jazz/Old School R&B singer songwriter, vocal coach & booking manager. Visit her online at reverbnation.com/peggyratusz or email her at pmarie43@yahoo.com.


The fabulously fun and informative Lunch & Learn event with Saralyn Collins, sponsored by WNC Woman, takes place this month on July 17th.
Event begins at 11:30 with networking, then lunch, introductions, workshop and discussion. LOCATION: Four Points Sheraton Hotel (exit 240 and Merrimon) 22 Woodfin St (easy parking and access).
To learn more and register: Click here for details!

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