They call what they do Pre-War Electric Blues — referring to an era of musical changes around World War II. ” It’s that mix where the blues was going from the country to the city, after the electric guitar got more popular,” explains Cary Fridley, half of the duo Asheville Aces. “It still has that Southern, old-style beat, but it also starts to sound like rock and roll.”
Asheville Aces isn’t the first chance the public has had to hear acoustic bassist/vocalist Fridley and guitarist/vocalist Scott Sharpe together — but it is the best, most distilled version, the product of years of friendship and musical interaction. They draw from both Delta and North Mississippi (or “hill country”) bluesmen and women such as R.L. Burnside, Memphis Minnie, Junior Kimbrough, and Muddy Waters. This is the rawest take on rockabilly.
Fridley and Sharpe have known each other since the 1990s, when she was in The Freight Hoppers — an old-time string band from Bryson City that released two discs on Rounder Records and were featured on NPR’s A Prairie Home Companion — and he in The Blue Rags, a full-attitude vintage-fusion act he co-founded, and the band that put Asheville on the national musical map.
“We were the folk act on the bluegrass circuit and would run into those guys,” says Fridley. “Then I moved to Asheville. I was learning to play blues with some other friends of mine, and I think Scott and I met up again at a Barley’s old-time jam.”
Similar musical paths led them to connect at various music festivals, and then to begin performing together when possible. As Sharpe says, “We just never really quit playing music together. We went through different band names, band people, but somehow have stayed together doing it.”
After performing at a festival in Louisiana they drove up the Blues Trail in Mississippi. “We went to Memphis Minnie’s grave in Walls, Mississippi, near Memphis,” Fridley recalls. “It’s so fascinating to have been listening to the music so long and then visit there.”
About a year ago, they stopped using the band name the Lowdown Travelers and refocused the music in a new way. “We decided to do a band centered around the two of us. Songs that we’re used to and could do as a duo if we need to,” she says, noting that they also like to have multi-instrumentalist Morgan Geer (Drunken Prayer) join them on occasion.
“It’s half my songs and half Scott’s songs. Mine are a lot from Memphis Minnie, and Scott does a lot by Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside, and we do originals. We each show up with a list and pick them as we go. We know that we’re going to take turns and that each of us is going to be in the hot seat.”
“It’s also reading the audience,” Sharpe notes.
“Scott has a great rhythm and beat, and he really takes cues well,” Fridley says. “So I can trust him to back me up. He can hear what I’m doing on bass and fit right in with it. After playing gigs for so many years, we can relax a little about things, and that’s nice.”
Sharpe pleads his case on the two-beat “Who Been Tellin’ You,” Fridley voices her suspicions on the shuffle “Good Morning.” Personality-wise they are miles apart — Fridley is wide open, with a laugh to infect an entire room, while Sharpe seems more the introvert, soft-spoken, tossing out witty comments in a wry, off-hand way.
The lanky musician grew up in Statesville, North Carolina, within walking distance of a well-stocked public library. “I’m a self-taught person,” Sharpe says. “A funny thing in Statesville — they had an awesome record collection at the library. All of the great old records, just sitting there. I would take them home and put them on cassettes. I was basically just cataloging them, and from there I figured out how to search and find out who they were.
“Mance Lipscomb was the first, and from there, like Mississippi John Hurt and then Mississippi Fred McDowell, a lot of those re-surfaced 1960s stars. That’s the stuff that I was really interested in. I met up with some young people of like-minded interests who were related to people that played music up around the Love Valley [NC] area, more bluegrass-y, swingy kind of stuff.”
Sharpe and harmonica player Abe Reid, the Blue Rags’ original lead singer, caught the ear of Tim Duffy of Music Maker Relief Foundation, and he found them a mentor. “This guy took us to meet this old blues guitar player from Winston-Salem called Guitar Gabriel, and we hung out with him and played the blues a lot as teenagers, basically before we became Blue Rag people,” Sharpe recalls. “The way that Gabriel did it was finger-style guitar, and it has an easier rhythm. It’s more laidback than electric blues. It’s country blues, which is definitely ingrained into what I play, no matter how I approach anything.”
Fridley hails from the town of Covington, in Virginia’s Allegheny Mountains. “I didn’t really know the difference between the blues styles, but I liked country blues. My dad has a Robert Johnson anthology, and I had Muddy Waters’ The Chess Box CD, and there’s a lot of blues in the folk music I was listening to when I was younger. That stuff is from Mississippi, but it’s a similar style of country blues.
“It was kind of uncharted territory. I was learning the bass and was really fascinated with the bass lines of Muddy Waters’ bass player. I started to get into it and then I met Scott, and he knows all the historical influence on everything,” she says.
Fridley holds a Masters degree in music education and taught in the Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Country Music Studies program at East Tennessee State University. These days, she teaches Introduction to Jazz and Music Appreciation at local A-B Tech.
In Asheville, the Aces have played Altamont Brewing Company, Jack of the Wood, and the Bywater; they took the Pack Square Park main stage at last summer’s Big Love Festival. The duo has also appeared in venues on tiny, history-laden Daufuskie Island, off the coast of South Carolina.
“We’re both traditionalists, for sure, and I consider myself an Appalachian person. There’s a strong sense of responsibility to draw from what’s gone on, to keep the link in the chain, so to speak,” says Fridley.
“It’s a rich culture here, and we’re all trying to keep the energy going.”