Audley Freed doesn’t have an easy answer or a pithy quote when asked to sum up the philosophy behind his art. He tries to answer the question, starting down several pathways of thought, before abandoning them only to set off on another road. It’s a hard question for anyone, but especially for an artist whose chosen means of expression is through a guitar rather than words. He pauses, then speaks with dead certainty.
“I’ll tell you what I have thought about a lot. It’s sitting in my bedroom, at my parent’s house when I was growing up, listening to records and practicing the guitar, moving that needle back. After all this time, how did this happen? It’s kind of crazy. It makes me really, really thankful, that it’s still going.”
Freed’s career has followed a path from the bedroom of his parents’ house — where he was aping the guitar leads of songs like Led Zeppelin’s “Celebration Day” or Aerosmith‘ s “Toys in the Attic” — to sharing a stage with the men that created that music. That might sound like a tale of pure rock ’n’ roll magic, but the rock-star flash was more born of talent, hard work, miles on the road, persistence, and ... OK, maybe a little magic.
Freed spent his early years living the transient life of an Army kid, but by the time he was entering his teens, his father had retired and the family settled in Burgaw, N.C., a town of fewer than 2,000 people in the southeastern corner of the state. The guitarist’s memories of growing up in a small Southern town in the 1970s are pretty idyllic; he never felt the drive to revolt against the world he was in or the need to escape his surroundings. But there was a connection to a bigger world that Freed couldn’t ignore.
“I grew up listening to the radio during what was a golden age of rock music, soul, and pop,” he says. “Once I discovered that music was something that spoke to me, radio was my window into a different world, even though I loved the world I grew up in. That music coming through the airwaves was a kind of magic. I can look back now and recognize that it meant more to me than just a way out or something one could do for a living. I wanted to find out what playing that music and being in a rock ’n’ roll band was all about.”
It’s hard to comprehend now — after decades of reissues, deluxe CD box sets, and practically the entire history of recorded music being available through the click of a mouse — but access to music for most teenagers in the rural South of the 1970s was pretty much limited to what could be heard on the radio or found in the record department of the local K-Mart.
“I didn’t know anybody that had any blues records,” Freed says. “There was a Marine base in Jacksonville, about 30 miles away. They had a rock station, and there was also an FM station in Wilmington that played a lot of ’70s soul and R&B. Those two stations were what I heard the most.”
There was another influence, but one that no self-respecting teenage Zeppelin or Skynyrd fan would admit to at the time. “My dad had a lot of George Jones, Johnny Horton and those Dave Dudley truck driving records,” Freed says, “which I liked as a child, but as I got older I kind of ran away from that. At that time it was not cool to be into it, even though there were a lot of rock bands that were drawing from that same music. But they had long hair and bell-bottomed pants, so they were cool. If you were my age, you tried to distance yourself from your parents’ music, but somewhere inside me that music resonated.”
It didn’t take very long for Freed to make the connection between the magic sounds he was hearing on the radio and the tools required to make those sounds. “My parents signed me up for guitar lessons in Wilmington, which was about 25 miles away,” he says. “I took lessons for a couple of years and then taught myself off records. There was one guy in the next county named Ernie Johnson. He was probably around 21 at the time, but he took a lot of time to show me some stuff and turn me on to some good music. He was very inspirational at a formative time for me.”
By the time Freed had finished high school, the guitar had become his main passion. But as he prepared for college, the idea of pursuing a career in music never crossed his mind. “I won’t say there were few options to play music for a living in Burgaw. There were zero options. It wasn’t an oppressive environment. It was just something that nobody did. The idea of playing music for a living wasn’t a real thing. I didn’t even think it was possible.”
Freed spent four years attending the University of North Carolina Wilmington, obtaining a history degree, but also spending a large portion of his time playing in rock bands. It was a gradual process of learning what he didn’t want to do with his life, until the previously unimaginable was the only option left.
“When I got out of college, I got a gig with a cover band for about three years,” Freed says. “We traveled around to frat parties and had week-long engagements in various bars. It was a good education — three sets a night, three to four hours a night, six nights a week. Your calluses are always strong. I quit that in the late ’80s, got off the road, got a job in a music store in Raleigh, taught guitar lessons, and played for weddings on the weekend. But at the same time, we put the band Cry of Love together.”
Formed in 1989, Cry of Love was a breath of fresh and familiar air to hard rock fans in the early ’90s. Their debut album, 1993’s Brother, combined a hard-workin’ Southern-rock ethos with a back-to-basics ’70s classic-rock sound. It was no-gimmicks rock ’n’ roll and fans ate it up, as the band scored a No. 1 hit on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart with the song “Peace Pipe.”
Although Cry of Love’s second album, 1997’s Diamonds & Debris, fell short of the success achieved by their debut, Freed’s reputation as an inventive and first-class guitarist was now well established. That became evident when he got a call the next year from the Black Crowes.
“A couple of friends recommended me to them,” Freed says. “I knew [lead singer] Chris Robinson, and my band had just run its course. I felt like I understood where they were coming from and that I could give them an honest day’s work. Their music was something that I could relate to as a listener, but because of the way I played guitar I could also contribute something.”
Joining the band in March 1998, Freed played with the Black Crowes for the next 3 1/2 years, appearing on the studio album Lions (2001), as well as the concert album Live at the Greek (2000), a set that saw Freed sharing the stage with a living legend of rock music, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page.
“We got the chance to back him for a charity event in London,” Freed says. “I wound myself up so much for it, after the first rehearsal I totally spun out. It was almost like an anxiety attack. It’s certainly not an understatement to say it was a big deal to me. I had the Circus magazine poster from the 1977 tour on my bedroom wall as a teenager. Icon doesn’t do him justice. It was like he was a superhero, and he created all this great music. For me, he’s right at the top.”
Other than Freed’s initial anxiety over meeting his hero, the concert was a huge success, and Page soon offered to join the band for a U.S. tour of three cities: New York, Boston and L.A.
“The very first night of the very first show at the Roseland in New York was something else,” Freed says. “You have to remember that most people hadn’t seen him play live for many years, so the electricity in the room was something that you don’t experience that often. And to be on the stage experiencing it — I’ll never forget that first downbeat on ‘Celebration Day.’ It took my breath away.”
At the end of 2001, the Black Crowes took an extended break from performing, with the individual members going their separate ways. Although Freed may have temporarily been out of work, factors were converging to open a new chapter in his career.
“After the Crowes split up,” Freed says, “I didn’t know what I was going to do. It’s kind of been my life plan just to stumble through. In 2002, I got a call from Ken Coomer. He was working on a record, and I came to Nashville to work on that and stayed with him for two weeks at his old house on McGavock.
“I’d barely been in Nashville. I’d maybe played two shows here in all my travels. The next four or five months, I kept coming to Nashville to do different things. I had never considered moving here, but it was like connecting the dots, and they started connecting quickly and were very close together. My wife and I had been looking to relocate [from Raleigh, N.C.]. We had looked around in L.A. and Austin. L.A. was super expensive and Austin didn’t feel right as a place to live even though I love that town. There was just something about Nashville. I was running on instinct, but it made total sense.”
Relocating to Nashville in 2003, Freed and his wife first settled on Stratford Avenue, before buying their current Inglewood home. “Just to have this great community here is a blessing,” Freed says. “Being able to call up my buddy Jamie Rubin at the Family Wash and ask if I can have a Wednesday night to do whatever. Or for him to call me and say, ‘Let’s do a night of Neil Young songs.’ That’s really awesome, because it’s a community. It’s a gift to be able to go down the street and play music with your friends. That’s one of greatest things about living here.”
In addition to his casual music endeavors, the last decade has been an incredibly busy time for Freed’s professional pursuits. That rich soil of musical influences from his childhood — rock, soul and country — gave him a versatility that has led to working with artists across the musical spectrum. He’s worked on projects, co-wrote songs or recorded with Gov’t Mule, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Job Cain, New Earth Mud, Aerosmith lead guitarist Joe Perry, the Wreckers, the Dixie Chicks, Lynyrd Skynyrd and more. He’s also played with or toured in support of the Dixie Chicks, Peter Frampton, Paul Stanley, Gregg Allman, Jakob Dylan and many others. Since 2012, Freed’s steadiest gig has been touring with Sheryl Crow. He’s also taken some time out for a side project band, Big Hat, which features the all-star line-up of Freed, Keith Gattis, Peter Stroud, Robert Kearns, Fred Eltringham and Ike Stubblefield. When asked about the well of talent he’s worked with over the years, Freed’s Southern-boy modesty takes center stage.
“I don’t want it to sound like I’m just dropping names,” he says. “They’re all great musicians, and you get to learn a lot when you’re around really good musicians. When I toured with Jakob Dylan, his record was all acoustic, and we played with a pretty mellow style. It was really different from playing with a loud rock band, and I had to find my place in a trio. I’m learning something all the time.”
That same modesty is apparent when Freed is asked about his plans for the future. “I think it’s just human nature to feel like, ‘Well, that was fun but that’s the end of that,’” Freed says. “I’m always expecting it to ramp down, but one of the biggest blessings is that I’m still getting calls to work on really exciting projects. The past few years I’ve been really busy, and I’ve had a lot of opportunities to do amazing things.”
Freed’s enduring sense of wonder at the life he’s lived through music makes sense, as you trace it back through the years to a small town boy’s bedroom in North Carolina, where he was wearing down the grooves of Led Zeppelin records, attempting to unlock the magical secrets of Jimmy Page’s guitar solos.
“I never heard about a ‘five year plan’ until I was in my 30s,” Freed says. “People talk about five year plans or 10 year plans, but I just kind of stumbled through this somehow, and it’s all worked out OK up to this point. I wish I could explain it, but I guess I don’t feel so alone when other people say they’ve done the same thing.
“That’s not to say there’s any substitute for dedication and hard work though. There are a lot of guys that have a lot more natural ability than I have and are more obsessed with it than I am. I’ve had to work really hard for some things that come easy for others, but that’s OK. You just can’t let the hard work get in the way of it being fun.”