The Freight Train Blues Music Series — a Carrboro celebration of the unique life and legacy of Piedmont blues legend Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten — typically takes place at Carrboro Town Commons. This year, however, circumstances have demanded a change in the celebration.
But the show will most definitely go on.
This year, Hillsborough-based non-profit Music Maker Relief Foundation — along with the Carrboro Tourism Development Authority, Carrboro Recreation, Parks & Cultural Resources Department and 97.9 The Hill — will present a livestream version of the annual Freight Train Blues Music Series.
According to its website, the Music Maker Relief Foundation’s mission surrounding the Freight Train Blues series is “to promote and preserve American musical traditions by partnering directly with elderly musicians.” Listeners and prospective concert-goers will find the performances broadcasted on Facebook Live, YouTube and on 97.9 The Hill — both over the radio and streaming on Chapelboro.com — May 22 through June 19.
Freight Train Blues celebrates the life and enduring legacy of Piedmont blues legend Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten, born in 1893 in Carrboro and best known for compositions such as “Freight Train” and “Shake Sugaree” — both tunes being genre classics and highly-regarded in Cotten’s own time as well as by musicians today. Cotten’s contributions to American roots music — and the Freight Train Blues series that celebrates her — highlight the cultural significance, diversity and vitality of her North Carolina community and its connections to artists across the nation.
Since 1994, Music Maker Relief Foundation has helped over 500 musicians, and through its sustenance program, elderly roots musicians living in poverty are given critical support in the form of monthly grants and emergency funding when needed. Emergency grants have seen a considerable uptick during the COVID-19 crisis, and MMRF staff have been in close contact with artists while working to provide grocery deliveries so that this vulnerable population can properly remain physically distant.
In addition to its sustenance program, MMRF also books performances for their artists — all of which have been canceled for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, as a working musician, there is often little in the way of a retirement savings or safety net to carry you through uncertain times — which means that the donations received as part of the Freight Train Blues series will be making a world of difference in the lives of North Carolina’s older musicians and artists.
According to a release from the Music Maker Relief Foundation, this year’s Freight Train Blues series will include the following performances:
May 22 – Mandolin Orange – Mandolin Orange’s music radiates a mysterious warmth —their songs feel like whispered secrets, one hand cupped to your ear. The North Carolina duo have built a steady and growing fanbase with this kind of intimacy, and on “Tides of A Teardrop,” released February 1, 2019 it is more potent than ever. By all accounts, it is the duo’s fullest, richest, and most personal effort. You can hear the air between them—the taut space of shared understanding, as palpable as a magnetic field, that makes their music sound like two halves of an endlessly completing thought. Singer-songwriter Andrew Marlin and multi-instrumentalist Emily Frantz have honed this lamp glow intimacy for years.
May 29 – Phil Cook – Throughout Cook’s career as a prolific songwriter, instrumentalist and producer- during which he has collaborated with The Blind Boys of Alabama, Bon Iver, The Indigo Girls, and Hiss Golden Messenger as well as the released two acclaimed solo albums- Phil has spent the interstitial moments crafting gorgeous melodic meditations on whatever instrument is laying around at the time. His latest album, “As Far As I Can See,” culls Cook’s favorite moments from out of print releases, as well as four unreleased recordings, into a brilliant companion to his more widely released output.
June 5 – Hiss Golden Messenger – Describing the Durham-based Hiss Golden Messenger is like trying to grasp a forgotten word: It’s always on the tip of your tongue, but hard to speak. Songwriter and bandleader M.C. Taylor’s music is at once familiar, yet impossible to categorize: Elements from the American songbook—the steady, churning acoustic guitar and mandolin, the gospel emotion, the eerie steel guitar tracings, the bobbing and weaving organ and electric piano—provide the bedrock for Taylor’s existential ruminations about parenthood, joy, hope, and loneliness—our delicate, tightrope balance of dark and light—that offer fully engaged contemporary commentary on the present.
June 12 – Lightnin’ Wells – Mike “Lightnin'” Wells breathes new life into the vintage tunes of the 1920s and depression era America employing various appropriate stringed instruments in a dynamic style which he has developed in over 50 years of performing experience. Raised in Eastern North Carolina, Wells learned to play harmonica as a young child and taught himself to play the guitar as he developed a strong interest in traditional blues and folk music.
June 19 – Thomas Rhyant – Rhyant uses music to tell the stories of those who came before him, allowing people to not only understand but emotionally connect with history. When his 93-year-old mother-in-law came to hear his Sam Cooke show — he mixes Cooke tunes with stories about his life — she threw her hip out dancing. “She couldn’t get up the stairs the next day,” Rhyant said, “but every now and then she asks, ‘When are you going to do that Sam Cooke show again?’”