Dori Freeman grew up in a family of bluegrass musicians, raised on a diet of Doc Watson and the Louvin Brothers. But by driving age, she'd cruise around her hometown of Galax, Virginia, windows down, breeze riffling her cropped strawberry-blonde hair, and harmonize with the pop melodies of singer-songwriter Teddy Thompson playing on her CD player. “I always thought that our voices sounded nice together," Freeman says in a rough-edged, Appalachian twang. The feeling stuck with her, and at one point, Freeman did something odd for a 22-year-old single mom working at the family's frame shop: she reached out to him via Facebook, with a note saying how much she would like to sing with him. Three days later, he wrote back. Two years after that, The New York Times named Freeman’s self-titled debut—an honest and achingly beautiful collection of folk and country songs produced by Thompson and recorded in three days—one of the best albums of 2016. They weren’t alone, rave reviews poured in for Dori’s debut, hailing her as the new voice of Appalachia.
While Freeman’s debut hewed to love-gone-wrong songs, her new album, the more measured and maturely crafted Letters Never Read—again produced by Teddy Thompson and featuring guest appearances by his dad Richard Thompson, as well as Aiofe O’Donovan and Canadian psych-folk duo Kacy & Clayton —has a distinctly rosier outlook. “I always want to put out something that’s a genuine representation of what I was going through at that point in my life,” says Freeman, noting that getting married last year to fellow musician Nick Falk (who plays drums and banjo on the album) made writing love songs much easier. She laughs. “I’m happier now in general.”
Her melancholy baseline's holding strong, however. “Cold Waves” offers strikingly palpable telegrams from within depression (“Cold Waves, blue haze, that’s what it feels like, on the dark days,” she lilts over guitar and vibraphone) and her favorite song, “Lovers on the Run” is about being left behind: “I’ve spent many an hour writing letters never read/I’ve stared away the ceilings of a thousand lonesome beds.” The album title, Letters Never Read, comes from the idea of “writing songs about people in your past and maybe them never knowing that it’s about them,” she explains, “kind of like a letter never being read.
Honesty—in both writing and performance—seems almost reflexive in Freeman's case. “I don’t try to overdo any songs or put on big theatrics. I think simple is better.” It’s a reflection of her Appalachian roots, which she’s immensely proud of. “I think people have an idea of what this area in the country is like, and what that music sounds like, and it’s not necessarily a really nice picture that’s been painted. I want to break that stereotype down,” she says. “I’m proud of where I’m from. And I want to bring that kind of music to a new audience in a different way.”