In a city that’s launched several young, blues-based artists to various levels of prominence over the past decade or so — the North Mississippi Allstars, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Valerie June, to name three — singer/songwriter/guitarist Jason Freeman has been a fixture, but one always just outside the spotlight.
He co-founded the string-band-based Bluff City Backsliders more than a decade ago, prepped Samuel L. Jackson for his bluesman role in Black Snake Moan, has played with local artists such as June and Amy LaVere, and fronted, briefly, another band, the Midtown Lowdowns. But this winter Freeman finally made his solo debut with the impressive album Hex & Hell, released via filmmaker Craig Brewer’s BR2 imprint. (The longtime collaborators also became brothers-in-law a few years ago.)
“Even though I’ve been part of the scene for awhile, I still think there are probably a lot of people who know of me but don’t really know what I do,” Freeman says. “So I wanted to have something to kind of give myself a presence.”
Freeman was born and raised in Memphis, but his discovery of the blues was more happenstance.
“It was something that happened on my own,” Freeman says. “I didn’t know anyone who listened to blues, even living in Memphis. It was just a freak thing for most people who knew me. They were surprised that I was getting into this music.”
For Freeman, his gateway was early twentieth-century country blues: artists such as Robert Johnson, Son House, Bukka White, Sleepy John Estes, and Memphis’ Furry Lewis.
“Slide guitar, particularly, really interested me. And that old style of blues just seemed so different from anything I’d ever been exposed to growing up,” Freeman says. “It was like music from another planet even though it came from my region. And at that time it was harder to find that kind of music. Now you can just go on your computer and find the most obscure blues artist imaginable. Some people get into punk music when they’re a teenager because it seems to be rebellious. Well, for me, that was country blues, which just seemed so different and bizarre compared to what my friends were listening to.”
But it wasn’t until moving to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, as a teenager that Freeman got a guitar and taught himself to play.
“Music was always something I was into but I never really felt like I had any kind of aptitude or talent for it,” Freeman says. But he found plenty of inspiration and opportunity in that Ozarks tourist town.
“There was a great music scene in that area, mostly traditional stuff,” Freeman says. “Old ballad-type singing, bluegrass, dulcimer, and those kinds of weird instruments you don’t normally see people playing here. And some pretty good blues players, actually. Mostly the traditional, finger-picking style of acoustic blues, which was the kind of music I had already gotten into in Memphis.”
Freeman watched musicians playing in the parks of old Eureka Springs, and finally developed the confidence to join them.
“There were a lot of street musicians in the park,” he says. “You might see a guy playing a saw one day. Then you might see a guy playing a banjo. I remember a guy who used to play dobro who had a hook for a hand, and he used that for a slide. It was really exciting to see these different ways of playing music. I started busking on the street and I found that was a good way to learn and then try new material. You had a changing audience, so you didn’t feel the pressure of having to perform a whole set. You could play the same song over and over again. And that’s still one of my favorite ways to play music.”
Jason Freeman’s debut is packaged with a four-page comic book from Memphis filmaker and artist Mike McCarthy titled Haunted Sounds of Hex & Hell, whose cover proclaims "Beware the Curse of the Voodoo Guitar!"
Freeman moved back to Memphis in his 20s, playing on the streets downtown and later forming the Bluff City Backsliders alongside Michael Graber, who remains his partner in a band that’s otherwise turned over its lineup in the decade-plus of its existence.
Helping Jackson give a convincing portrayal of a bluesman for Brewer’s Black Snake Moan was a highlight.
“That was really kind of surreal,” Freeman says. “I think Sam had taken guitar lessons before, so he wasn’t just a total novice. But I’m not sure really how competent he was as far as playing a whole song. I think he knew a few chords maybe. I don’t think he knew any slide at all. The main song in the movie is a slide-guitar piece. That was kind of my role. Teach him how to hold the slide. How to move it and make it look natural.”
Freeman spent a couple of days with Jackson on set, helping him look good. But Freeman’s more prominent role in the film was helping Jackson sound good. The film’s title song is a Freeman arrangement of a Blind Lemon Jefferson song. Jackson sings it, but Freeman is the one playing on the soundtrack.
“We did it live at Ardent [Studios],” Freeman says. “He was in the vocal booth and I was playing it. That was a great experience. Really, for me, that was the most exciting moment, being in the studio recording.”
It wasn’t Freeman’s last appearance on a Brewer soundtrack, his song “Magic in My Home,” which is on Hex & Hell, appeared as a music cue and also on the soundtrack for Brewer’s remake of Footloose. And Brewer’s participation has spurred the multimedia aspect of Freeman’s debut, which is packaged with, instead of traditional liner notes, a four-page comic book from Memphis filmmaker and artist Mike McCarthy titled Haunted Sounds of Hex & Hell, whose cover proclaims “Beware the Curse of the Voodoo Guitar!” and creates a mythology for the album. The release of the album has also been feted by three stylistically dissimilar music videos from local filmmakers McCarthy, Alan Spearman, and Christopher Reyes.
“I don’t know if the timing wasn’t right for various reasons,” Freeman says of his delayed solo debut. “I could never find the right players and studio and people to facilitate the making of the record, financially or whatever. [I had to develop] confidence in the material I wanted to put out there. And all of those things finally aligned in the right way and I just felt like the time was right. I felt like it was just something I couldn’t afford to put off any longer.”
Freeman produced the record, with drummer Daniel Farris a constant.
“We originally played in this band called El Dorado & the Ruckus,” he says. “We both left that band and started playing together, just a drum and guitar thing. Really the record is kind of a drum/guitar thing, and the idea was always to supplement that with different local musicians I’ve worked with and felt comfortable with, just to add a little texture.”
Freeman’s slide-guitar drives the opening “Dirty Heart,” but after that several other ace local players come aboard to add color to Freeman’s gutbucket blues foundation. Adam Woodard (Tearjerkers, Star & Micey) provides some Memphis organ to “Florida Watah.” On the title track, Freeman spars with the strong response of his “Hexen Trio” — Heather Trussel on violin and Memphis Dawls Krista Wroten on violin and Jana Misener on cello.
Suzi Hendrix joins on the stomping “Love Baby” to suggest what it might have sounded like if Howlin’ Wolf added a saxophone to his band. And bassist Amy LaVere adds some strut to “Teasin’ Me.”
All original songs, it’s more electric and more flamboyant than the traditional style of Freeman’s previous recorded work with the Backsliders. At times it evokes the classic hill-country blues of the past couple of decades and at other times suggests the Sun Studio moment when blues (the music) merged into rockabilly (Freeman’s voice). It compares well to such commercial-breakthrough blues-rock acts as Jack White or the Black Keys.
“Often times people only see you as this one kind of player, but I’m into so many styles of music. I wanted to show something a little different than the Bluff City Backsliders. I’ve been playing this way a long time but didn’t have the right venue to show it. It’s a style and sound I’m really comfortable with.”