The music of the Piedmont rolls into Carrboro for a free concert series

Gail Ceasar (top) and Lil' Jimmy Reed (bottom) performing at Freight Train Blues Series. Photos and photo collage by Pamir Kiciman.


By Pamir Kiciman

CARRBORO — For the ninth year, The Freight Train Blues Series returns to Carrboro, with eight free Friday evening concerts at Town Commons, May 5-June 23.

The concert series honors Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten, born 1893 in Carrboro.

“We want to give our community as much access to this music as possible,” wrote Tess Stogner in an email to The Local Reporter, about how the series is extended to eight weeks this year with new sponsorship from The Forests at Duke, a nonprofit continuing care retirement community.

Stogner is the communications coordinator at Music Maker Foundation (MFF) which puts on the event together with the town of Carrboro.

“Expanding the series to eight weeks means that more folks can come hear this music, and we can book more artists to showcase the musical diversity of this region,” Stogner continued.

MMF is a nonprofit based in Hillsborough. Founded in 1994 by Tim and Denise Duffy, it’s a charitable and vigorous effort to preserve the roots music of the South by assisting vulnerable artists who are more than 55-years-old and subsist on less than $25,000 per year.

American roots music is a broad term, but MMF focuses on the Piedmont traditions of blues, gospel, string band, folk, Native American, and singer-songwriter. The Piedmont in this case isn’t only the North Carolina Piedmont, but the entire southeastern region, spanning parts of Virginia, Georgia and Tennessee, together with South and North Carolina.

Top: Attendees in line for beer (there was also an ice cream truck). Bottom left: Lil’ Jimmy Reed playing among the crowd. Bottom right: Audience at Freight Train Blues Series on May 5. Photos and photo collage by Pamir Kiciman.

Of the two first night artists, Gail Ceasar is from Pittsville, Virginia, and bluesman Lil’ Jimmy Reed is Alabama-based. In the following weeks, musicians from North Carolina towns like Spencer, Farmville and Mt. Holly and a host of others are booked to perform, together with those from Birmingham and New Orleans and others.

What you can expect to hear gets a little tricky because the music of the Piedmont defies categorization. Typically characterized as a fingerpicking guitar style in which the thumb alternates a bass string rhythm, with the index finger — and sometimes others — picking a syncopated melody on the treble strings, techniques and song crafting vary greatly.

“The music of the Piedmont is expansive; there’s no singular sound that defines it. Even within the genre of Piedmont blues, there are many variations of sound depending on the artist,” Stogner explained.

A part of MMF’s mission is to showcase the depth and breadth of the region. Here’s a sample of sounds you’ll hear according to Stogner: “We’ve got the crooning, bluegrass-blues blend of Gail Ceasar’s music [5/5], the verve of Faith & Harmony’s eastern North Carolina gospel sound [6/2], and the pizzazz of Pat “Mother Blues” Cohen’s soulful blues [6/23].”

“It starts off in my head, I don’t know how to explain it,” Gail Ceasar said about her songwriting process. “I think about how I want to put the tune together, then I pick up my guitar to see what might fit, then I get my words together. Sometimes it happens fast, sometimes it takes a while.”

Gail Ceasar during her Freight Train Blues Series set. Photo by Pamir Kiciman.

Last Friday, Ceasar opened her set with a lovesick blues tune called “Sky is Crying,” and followed it with the title track off her album, “Guitar Woman Blues.” She recorded the album despite losing her house in a 2022 fire.

Then she went into “Feelin’ Blue,” a tune she had never sung in public before.

Feelin’ blue
and I don’t know what to do
I ain’t got nobody
to tell my troubles to

Ceasar represents the longstanding oral traditions of Virginia.

“It’s music that I grew up listening to my family play,” she said. “I don’t hear as many people playing it anymore; it seems like it’s dying out. But I like to hear it, I want to keep hearing it, so I keep on playing it.”

Lil’ Jimmy Reed, who closed the night with a long set is one of the last Louisiana bluesmen according to WUNC‘s Rusty Jacobs, who introduced both acts.

Born in a shotgun shack in Harwood, Louisiana, the octogenarian is a veteran and bought his home in Alabama through the VA Loan Program.

A showman in every sense of the word, Reed gave an electrifying performance. With a powerful voice belying his age, he played a piercing harmonica to add to his no holds barred finger work on guitar.

Lil’ Jimmy Reed when he first got up to walk into the audience at Freight Train Blues Series. Photo by Pamir Kiciman.

When he first got up to walk and play through the crowd, this writer was near the stage for some closeups with his camera. Reed knew exactly where the lens was and came straight for it with an energy that rippled through the audience. Meandering through folding chairs and blankets, he played and sang for a long time before sitting down.

The intensity continued for the rest of his set.

“When I’m sitting down by myself, I can start writing. You got to be alone,” Reed said. “Once I start, you just keep on writing it, it just comes to me. The blues is a feeling. You got to know it. The blues is good for you.”

Free concert series like this don’t happen in a vacuum. Together with Forests at Duke, WUNC is a sponsor of the event, in conjunction with the town of Carrboro.

Sonic Pie Productions also lends a hand by providing a crew and PA system. “There are a lot of moving parts behind the scenes,” founder Tess Mangum wrote TLR in an email. “We focus on technical issues such as wind, weather and sight lines so Music Maker can have quality face time with their multi-generational audience.”

Celebrating its 30th year in 2024, MMF constantly finds new artists to support and feature. “We have a vast network of musicians in our family and find that word of mouth tends to get us pretty far,” Stogner said. “We also attend festivals and concerts regularly to scout out new talent.”

To learn who’s next in the free concert series, 6:30-8:30 pm at Carrboro Town Commons through June 23, visit this extensive page with artist bios, videos and the dates they will be performing. You can even click through to read more about each musician.

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