For musicians like Frank Lee, the past year has been a strange one. A good one, mind you, but still strange.
Lee has been the leader of the Bryson City, N.C., old-timey string-music band the Freight Hoppers since 1992. (In fact, he’s the only original member left.) After success in the 1990s—an appearance on A Prairie Home Companion, two albums on Rounder Records—the band took a five-year hiatus in 2002, reforming again in 2007. But the past few months have been something else entirely.
“It’s been a huge blessing,” Lee says. “There are people coming out to our shows that didn’t remember what we were doing in the ’90s.”
The people Lee is talking about aren’t fans who have forgotten the Freight Hoppers over the course of time. No, they’re fans who couldn’t remember the band’s albums from the ’90s because they were barely walking at the time.
In case you haven’t listened to the radio in a while, Appalachian-tinged pop music has taken hold in the Billboard charts. Mumford and Sons’ 2010 album Sigh No More has charted for 160 straight weeks; last September’s Babel is still the number-one folk album and the number-two rock album, and their single “I Will Wait” remains in the top 20, even 31 weeks after its release. The Lumineers are also at the top of the charts, and the Avett Brothers’ 2012 album, The Carpenter, continues to have strong sales. Banjos, mandolins, and fiddles are everywhere—even Taylor Swift plays the banjo.
Lee says he doesn’t really have any idea why this kind of “homogenized” and “user-friendly” folksy pop has taken off the way it has, but he’s thankful for it.
“Lucky for me, it’s an easy way for a huge amount of people to get into music that’s like, oh, here’s a banjo,” Lee says. “It opens the door to this kind of traditional music. It’s making what we’re doing accessible.”
What the Freight Hoppers are doing is what they’ve always been doing—playing the earliest of the early country music, songs first recorded in the 1920s and ’30s. Lee plays the banjo and bottleneck guitar and sings, while Edward Hunter fiddles, Bradley Adams plays the string bass, and Isaac Deal plays the guitar and also helps on vocals. It may not be the original lineup, but the song remains much the same.
Lee says he first got interested in early country recordings while growing up in Atlanta. While the city today is known for its hip-hop and soul, Lee says that it, like Knoxville, was one of the earliest centers of recording studios specializing in country songs, before all the business moved to Nashville.
“My school bus went by the grave of an early recording artist—for 12 years, every day, I saw that. So I got really excited about [the music],” Lee says.
The grave the bus drove past was that of Riley Puckett, a blind guitarist signed to Columbia Records in 1924 who quickly became the label’s star. Puckett, along with Gid Tanner, helped lead the Skillet Lickers, and had hits with songs like “Red River Valley,” “Oh, Susannah,” and “My Carolina Home.”
Lee says that after he discovered Puckett, he was hooked on the genre, eventually moving to Bryson City to work on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, entertaining tourists who came to ride the train with period music.
“That’s how the band started,” Lee says. And indeed, two of the band’s current members still perform on the train—that is, when the band isn’t touring all over the country. “We’re going out West a lot this year,” Lee says.
Still, Knoxville remains a special place for the Freight Hoppers to play (and not just because it’s an easy drive home at the end of the night). Lee says WDVX has created a community of listeners appreciative of old-time music, long before the Mumfords or Avetts spurred renewed interest in the genre.
“There’s always pretty much a guaranteed audience—unless there’s a football game going on,” he laughs.
And even with the increasingly common invasion of twentysomething hipsters at the band’s shows, Lee says his favorite part of playing live is the wide age range in the audiences, from the little kids dancing around to the older people tapping their feet in the back—many of whom, Lee says, remember the music from the first time it was popular.
“There’s always some story about how one of their relatives played the song with a certain instrument,” Lee says. “We hear some great stories doing this.”