It’s hard to tell who’s the star of the Willard Gayheart Family Band. Of course 87-year-old Willard is the headliner, but it’s also his granddaughter, Dori Freeman, who has been hailed by Rolling Stone and the New York Times.
Both Willard and Dori point to each other as the star of the Appalachian family ensemble that also includes Dori’s father, Scott Freeman, and her husband Nick Falk. And when asked about their music, Willard and Dori talk mainly about each other.
“Dori is in charge, I think,” Willard said. “The last time we played together, they used my name upfront, but she’s the one who puts it all together.”
“I get to sing behind my grandfather and that’s a real honor,” Dori said. “He plays the guitar and sings and he wrote most of the songs. He’s a great musician.”
When the band appears on The Richmond Times-Dispatch Virginia Folklife Stage at the Richmond Folk Festival in October, Willard will be upfront, while Dori will back him up on vocals. Dori will also join in on a singer/songwriter workshop during the weekend.
Music is often a family affair in the Appalachians; children learn from their parents, grandparents, cousins and neighbors, and in years gone by, it wasn’t unusual for families to play together on the front porch every evening.
This foursome is a fairly new ensemble, although each of the members has been playing for years. Willard started the tradition eight decades ago as a small child growing up in Hazard, Kentucky.
“I was born in 1932 and the first music I heard was in 1936 – my daddy brought home a windup phonograph player and some records from the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. I remember thinking I wanted to learn to play the guitar and sing like that.”
It was several years later before his wish came true. Willard attended the Cordia School and when he was 12, the teachers paid him to come in early and start the coal fires to heat the classrooms before school began each morning. At the end of the school year, he was paid all at once -- $3, which was enough to buy a used Montgomery Ward guitar.
The instrument was missing several strings, though, so more money had to be saved. When the guitar was finally playable, it was Willard’s mother who tuned it and showed him a few chords. Willard practiced all summer and by the fall, he could sing and play at the same time. He and a friend began performing together in school shows and from then on Willard never stopped singing and playing, even though he didn’t become part of an organized band until almost 20 years later, after he moved to Galax, Virginia, in 1962.
Old-time music capital
Galax is a small community in the Appalachian region of Southwest Virginia but it’s long been considered the mecca of bluegrass music for the entire Mid-Atlantic.
“We have that reputation as the old-time music capital,” said Dori, who was born and raised in Galax. “This is a town where a lot of musicians live and a lot of other types of art have sprung up around that too.”
Galax was the perfect place for Willard to start playing in bands and to develop his other talent – drawing.
Nowadays, most of the residents of Galax would say Willard is an accomplished visual artist and that it’s his granddaughter Dori who is the folk music celebrity.
But in the 1960s, Willard’s friends would have said he was another local musician playing with local bands. They didn’t know about his other passion.
“I was 4 when I heard the phonograph for the first time and wanted to learn to play, but even before then, I was drawing. If I could find a blank piece of paper, I was drawing,” Willard said.
His school in Hazard didn’t have an art class, but he kept drawing anyway and was encouraged by some of the teachers.
In art, like in music, he didn’t really get started as a professional until he moved to Galax and discovered a thriving art community.
Around the 1970s, I discovered this pencil thing,” he said. “I found if I took my time – sometimes a month for a single piece, I could do these drawings.”
In 1974, Willard drew two small pieces to donate for a community sale at his church. They were snapped up quickly and Willard suddenly had a new profession. More than 40 years later, locals in Galax – and strangers from around the world -- know him as one of the great illustrators of American folklife.
“I draw the people I see around me and the people I remember from my youth,” he said. “All of my drawings are real people and they all have a story.”
Along the line, Willard opened his own business, The Front Porch Gallery & Frame Shop, and that’s where both the music and the art get made today.
Willard may be the only pencil artist in the family but he’s one of many musicians. His daughter married Scott Freeman, a mandolin and fiddle player who was also from a long line of musicians. But it’s Scott’s daughter Dori who burst onto the folk scene and became nationally known as a rising star.
In 2014, she sent a clip of her singing to singer-songwriter Teddy Thompson. It was an unsolicited clip sent over Facebook, so it was a gutsy move. Teddy recalled in an interview with music publication, No Depression, that he gets unsolicited tracks from time to time as amateurs hope he can help them make it big. Usually, they’re terrible, he said, but Dori Freeman was different.
“It took me maybe 10 to 12 seconds to realize she’s great,” he said in the interview. “She’s in The Carter Family or Iris Dement aesthetic—maybe a little Gillian Welch. Their approach to singing and writing is quite similar—that straight-to-the-heart delivery.”
Teddy brought Dori to a studio in New York to produce Dori’s first album and when it dropped in 2016 Rolling Stone Country called it “a strong contender for Americana debut of the year.” The New York Times and NPR also hailed Dori as a breakout sensation and the accolades kept coming when she released her next album.
“I’ve been singing and playing since I was a teenager,” Dori said, although Willard added that he remembers her getting suddenly interested in music when she was about 14. “She just all of a sudden wanted to play and nobody had known about it until then. I was just floored, she was so good. It’s just a very natural thing for her.”
Dori left home for Virginia Tech but only stayed for a semester before deciding to pursue music more seriously. She moved back to Galax about four years ago and met her husband, percussionist Nick Falk, at the Lime Kiln Theater in Lexington when she was opening for his band.
Although her solo career has taken off and her third album, “Every Single Star,” will be released next month, Dori said she doesn’t really want to move away from Galax again.
“I’d like to continue to further my career as a musician but I’m definitely more of a rural setting kind of girl,” she said. “And it’s a good place to raise our daughter and keep her near the family.”
Staying close to home has also allowed her to continue to play music with the family.
“My dad and grandfather and I had a music show at the frame shop every Friday night in the summer,” she said. “I mostly sing harmony and my dad plays mandolin and fiddle. My grandfather sings and plays the guitar.”
‘At Home in the Blue Ridge’
During one of those Friday night shows, Dori realized the family needed a recording. Teddy Thompson came down from New York with a recording engineer to help make a CD of the family jam session with Willard, Scott, Dori and Nick.
“I’d been playing since I was 12 but it’s the first time I ever had my own solo album,” Willard said.
It was called “At Home in the Blue Ridge,” by Willard Gayheart & Friends, and the album cover is a comparatively simple self-portrait by Willard.
Far from being a studio job, the album was recorded live in Willard’s Front Porch Gallery & Frame Shop over the course of two days, while customers came and went. Any time a customer came in looking for a frame or one of Willard’s drawings, he’d stop, help them out, and then get back to the microphone.
“Most of the songs I wrote,” Willard said, “but getting to sing them with my family and to get them recorded on my own CD, that was a great thing. And having Nick on the drums – drums like that are unusual in this kind of music and the drums make it a little different than other things like this.”
“This type of music is almost an old-time country mixed with bluegrass,” Willard said, although he agreed the simple term “Appalachian music” is a good descriptor. “It’s kind of our own style.”
Like his pencil drawings, Willard’s songs each have a story behind them, from “The Shootin’,” about a murder back in Hazard when he was a child, to “Ern & Zorry’s Sneakin’ Bitin’ Dog,” a perennial crowd favorite that is now Dori’s most requested song in concert as well.
“It was really exciting getting to record like that,” Dori said. “We don’t get to play together as much as we used to. I played at the Richmond Folk Festival with my father in 2016 but my grandfather hasn’t ever been there. It’ll be great to be on such a major stage with him.”
“The real challenge for me will be keeping up with the rest of them,” Willard said. “They’re so good. Scott is one of the best musicians in the country so it’s always a privilege to play with him and Nick is one of the best percussionists anywhere. Dori though, Dori just sings like a canary. She’s a natural. I can never believe how good she is; it surprises me every time.”
Catch the Gayheart Family Band at the Richmond Times-Dispatch Folklife Stage, October 11-13, 2019