Waitin' On The Gravy Train

The Freight Hoppers

Bluegrass Now, February 1999

Trouble; Backstep Cindy; Anchored in Love; Molly Put the Kettle On; Ways of the World; Warfare; Polecat Blues; Nobody’s Business; A Roving on a Winter’s Night; Fall on My Knees; Fort Smith Breakdown; We Shall All Be Reunited; Wild Fling in the Woodpile; Hell Broke Loose in Georgia; Young Emily; Shortenin’ Bread

This is the follow-up to the band’s first highly successful album for Rounder, Where’d You Come From, Where’d You Go. The Freight Hoppers have previously gained the interest of many diehard bluegrass fans with their exuberant, infectious, driving old-time music, and those fans should find this album equally rewarding. David Bass on fiddle, Frank Lee on banjo, and Cary Fridley on guitar are joined on this recording by their newest band member, James O’Keefe, on bass to present a contemporary, high-spirited set of musical performances inspired by the North Carolina and North Georgia string bands of seventy years ago. Lee and Fridley also share the vocal responsibilities.

The Freight Hoppers are highly successful in reaching a blend between the music of the 1930’s and the energy and drive of the present. They really do not attempt to "re-create" previous recordings as museum pieces, but rather to extract the essence of the spirit of the music and give it a contemporary old-time rendering. The effective presentation of these songs cannot by accomplished by a smooth, crooning vocal style, but requires that a certain degree of raw, wild-edged singing be maintained, and this is successfully accomplished by Lee and Fridley. Excellent musicianship is required and delivered by the four musicians.

The sixteen cuts on the album are drawn from diverse traditional and old-time sources, and while a few should be generally familiar, others are delightful discoveries from obscure recordings. My favorite cuts include a whirling, enveloping version of "Backstep Cindy." An eerie, modal-flavored "Warfare," the genre-crossing, "Nobody’s Business," and a fine version of a popular old-time tune, "Fall on My Knees." And there are just enough slower-paced, thoughtful tune to balance the rip-roaring breakdown numbers.

A significant reflection of the relevance of this band for bluegrass is the fact that they were among the final nominees for emerging artist of the year for the 1998 IBMA awards. Bluegrass fans with an interest in old-time music will find this album highly enjoyable.

Dirty Linen, Feb/Mar '99, Vol #80

This North Carolina based old-timey drive engine releases their second album of aggressive, passionate and downright lively music. Folks say bluegrass is old-timey music speeded up; let's say that the Freight Hoppers are old-timey music sparkled up. You somehow know they live in 1998 even though their repertoire digs deep into traditional recordings from Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, the Carter Family, and Benton Flippen. Incongruous? Check the flat out stomp of "Nobody's Business," highlighted by the high-octane, over-amped alien falsetto from singer/guitarist Cary Fridley. She's also featured in more measured voice on the album's gospel tunes, including the Carter Family's "Anchored in Love" and Alfred G. Karnes "We Shall All Be Reunited," which while taken at a more reverent and slower pace, also have a drive and spirit that comes from the gut. Fridley came to modern old-time from bluegrass out of the church choir. Banjo player Frank Lee also came from the bluegrass camp, where he grew disillusioned with its slickness. Fiddler David Bass dropped out of college to fiddle (and step dance and eat fire) on the streets of New York City. Bassist Jim O'Keefe joined in 1996, bringing his hand-painted psychedelic standup bass that he purchased in the streets in Russia. The Freight Hoppers are careful to include notes on the history of all the songs, along with fiddle and banjo tunings. Still, with fiddle tunes like "Hell Breaks Loose in Georgia" (from the 20s) and a full0tilt romping album-closing version of "Shortnin' Bread," the Freight Hoppers keep a-rollin' all night long.

Bluegrass Unlimited, December 1998

first encountered the Freight Hoppers last year at the International Bluegrass Music Association's Trade Show in Louisville, Ky. There they were picking away in the middle of the hotel lobby, and I was immediately impressed with their talent and pure unadulterated energy. This latest recording project, "Waiting On The Gravy Train," consists of 16 selections traversing the musical gamut from rousing fiddle breakdowns like "Ways Of The World" to passionate vocals including "Anchored In Love," "We Shall All Be Reunited" and Cary Fridley's (guitar and vocals) brilliant a cappella rendition of "A Roving On A Winter's Night." Since 1993, the Freight Hoppers have been astounding audiences with their particular brand of traditional music. Although their roots are firmly planted in days gone by, they impart their own particular interpretation to pieces like "Shortnin' Bread." Fiddler David Bass is the prime lead instrumentalist and turns in impressive performances on pieces like "Fall On My Knees," "Polecat Blues," and "For Smith Breakdown." The other two members comprising the quartet are Frank Lee (banjo, guitar and vocals) and James O'Keefe (acoustic bass). Upon scrutinizing Charles Wolfe's expansive liner notes, it becomes obvious that these folks are not just mere musicians but students of history, who are preserving a significant element of our American musical heritage. While "Waiting On The Gravy Train" may not be the equivalent of experiencing the Freight Hoppers in person, it is unquestionably a delightful alternative.

Sing Out!, Vol 43 No 3, Winter 1999

Since its 1993 appearance, as talent show winners, on "A Prairie Home Companion," this North Carolina-based quartet has swiftly moved into front rank of old-time string bands with exuberant, fiddle-centered versions of traditional southern tunes. The Freight Hoppers' latest recording may be entitled Waiting On The Gravy Train, but the group can hardly be accused of standing still. Anyone who hears this collection won't be able to stand or sit still either. Less concerned with duplicating than honoring their elders, the Hoppers play with both skill and infectious spirit. "Trouble" kicks things off things at full throttle, driven by David Bass' fiddle and Frank Lee's plunky banjo and fueled by the slapping rhythm of Cary Fridley's guitar and James O'Keefe's bass. Although the Freight Hoppers favor breakneck breakdowns, they also make room for a moody modal fiddle tune ("Ways of the World"), homey vocal duets ("Anchored in Love"), a mournful mountain hymn ("Warfare"), and a Child-esque ballad "Young Emily"). Fridley handles most of the vocal leads with Lee supplying the harmony but stepping out front occasionally ("Fall on My Knees," "Nobody's Business"). Both have straight-forward voices that work best in their carefully crafted duets, on which Fridley, in particular, seems emboldened by Lee's presence. The Hoppers eschew fancy arrangements and strip to the essentials of fiddle and banjo for "Wild Fling in the Woodpile," guitar and vocal for "We Shall All Be reunited," and Fridley's unaccompanied voice for "A Roving on A Winter's Night," her most effective solo vocal. But it is the fiddle tunes that really distinguish the Hoppers and that make this gravy train worth riding.

In the Walnut Valley Festival list of artists: