Joe Frye Sings to His Own Tune
A young man sits outside of Flynne’s Coffee Bar on Broad Street, strumming the blues on his nickel-plated acoustic guitar.
The fedora he wears tilted over his brow adds an air of mystery about him as he soulfully croons the lyrics to Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues,” toes a-tapping. When he looks up from his guitar, after an upbeat breakdown and an ending that fades like a whisper, his baby blues are smiling warmly.
Old-time Delta blues singer Joe Frye, 26, of West End, performed at the “Raising the Roof” fundraiser hosted at the Sunrise Theater on Jan. 23. On Saturday, Feb. 13, he will be playing a free show at Flynne’s in Southern Pines from 7 to 9 p.m.
Frye credits his grandfather, local bluegrass musician Marvin Frye, with introducing him to the Delta blues at the age of 7.
“My brother [Jordan Frye] and I wanted to learn how to play rock ’n’ roll, because that’s what my mom and dad always played for us on the radio,” Frye says.
When the two youngsters asked their grandfather to show them how to play the guitar, Marvin told them that he could not teach them rock.
“But I can teach you the blues,” he told them.
Hence, after Marvin played Johnson’s 1936 track “Terraplane Blues” for his grandsons, Joe Frye changed his mind.
“I was hooked,” he says. “I told my grandfather that I didn’t know if I wanted to play rock music anymore. I told him I might rather play the blues.”
Joe Frye admits that he played in his share of rock bands while he was growing up, most of which with his brother Jordan and Matt Barnes, a sorely missed friend and musician. Even then, Frye claims he could never resist sneaking a blues song or two in their performances any chance that he could.
At the age of 16, Frye attended a music contest in Nashville, Tenn., with his old band. When told to pick four songs to play for a panel of judges, they played two rock songs followed by two blues songs. Frye claims that decision helped shape the direction of his music career.
“[The judges] were all about [the blues songs]; they didn’t like the rock,” he says. “That was sort of my first hint that I needed to play all blues like I had wanted to.”
Flynne Meares (of Flynne’s), who has known Frye long enough to see his transformation from long-haired rocker teen to clean-cut bluesman, says he has always been a talented kid.
“He seems so much more focused now that he knows what he wants to do,” she says.
The Rest is History
Frye now devotes his musical efforts to the Delta blues, specifically from the early 1920s through the mid 1940s, and is absolutely fascinated about its history.
“They lived it, they weren’t just playing it,” he says of the African-American community that created the blues from slave songs and old spirituals. “They may have been freed from slavery, but they weren’t really free.”
Frye honors the pioneers of a movement that encouraged integration between the races, such as musician Chuck Berry. Because of such well-received artists as Berry, the blues became a revolution — a common ground in which everyone, regardless of skin color, could participate.
Rusty Frye, Joe’s father, manager and — according to Joe — best friend, marvels at his son’s dedication to his music and his knowledge and respect of its origin.
“Joe knows the background of every song that he plays,” says Rusty. “And he always wears a suit.”
“Most of the [blues] musicians only had one suit,” says Joe. “So, if they played four nights back to back, they would wear that same suit all four nights. They wanted to look their best when they played. I want to carry on the tradition of wearing the suit, and I want to look my best when I play, too.”
Something New, Something Blue
Frye has released three blues albums and is currently working on his first CD to feature all-original tracks.
“A lot of the good songs that I come up with come about like that,” he says as he snaps his fingers. “If you have to think too hard about it, it’s usually not going to be any good.”
Although most popular music of today directly stemmed from or has been greatly influenced by the blues, Frye is afraid his music of choice has been long forgotten in our ever-evolving world. Thus, he feels it is his duty not only to perform, but also to educate.
After the Raising the Roof event, Frye was confronted by a woman working at the Sunrise. First, she confessed that she knew nothing about the Delta blues before Joe’s performance, and assumed it would be of no interest to her. She then declared, after his set, that she “loved it.” Perhaps she felt as Frye had after hearing Robert Johnson for the first time.
“If I’m doing the job right, [my audience] comes out liking it and wanting to hear more,” he says.
Frye will perform Feb. 13 from 7 to 9 p.m. at Flynne’s Coffee Bar, a family-friendly establishment located at 115 NE Broad St., Southern Pines. To learn more about him, visit his Web site at reverbnation.com/joefrye.
Ashley Wahl is a local freelance writer.
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