- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 8, 2002

NASHVILLE, Tenn — Gospel singer Isaac Freeman's first solo album was put on the shelf when his record company decided it didn't have enough money to promote it.
But the 73-year-old bass singer, whose career has included stints in prominent gospel quartets, including the Fairfield Four and the Skylarks, didn't give up.
"Man, I don't think nothing about it," Mr. Freeman Dickie to his friends says in his unmistakable deep growl. "When it came time to sing, I forgot about all that other stuff. I left all that behind me."
Lost Highway Records bought "Beautiful Stars" from Dead Reckoning and released it early this year. It's a stirring collection of spirituals Mr. Freeman sang as a boy in Johns, Ala. In a musical twist that paid off big, the album's backing band is a popular bluesy Nashville bar band, the Bluebloods.
The reviews have been raves.
"It's the resonance and depth of Freeman's baritone, as well as his stately phrasing, that give these 11 songs gravity," says Ted Drozdowski, music critic for Amazon.com. "But it's the scent of the barroom that makes many of these arrangements vital."
One of the album's songs, "You Must Come in at the Bottom," was written for Mr. Freeman by Garrison Keillor of the "Prairie Home Companion" radio show. The rest are from the singer's Alabama childhood.
Mr. Freeman, who was abandoned by his father, lived in poverty and faithfully attended church.
"We didn't have very much," he says. "We were living in a coal-mining camp. We had a little garden, and my grandmother used to work for white people in and out of the kitchen, wash and iron and all that stuff."
Mr. Freeman wanted to be the lead singer of a quartet, but his voice deepened, and he became a bass.
"You might just say it was a gift from God," he says of his amazing, rumbling voice.
His first major groups were the Golden Tones and the Kings of Harmony in the 1940s. There wasn't much money in it, but he was able to travel the country while singing in churches and school auditoriums.
"Back then, the guys in the coal mines I was raised up in were making more money," Mr. Freeman says.
In 1948, he got a big break when Rufus Currethers quit the Fairfield Four, a prominent a cappella quartet. Mr. Freeman was recruited as the replacement.
"It was a leap," Mr. Freeman says. "The Fairfield Four were in Nashville, and they were on this radio station every morning at a quarter to seven. They were being heard all over, particularly in the South. You could go out and make $400 or $500, man, in one night. That was top money."
He stayed for two years, then left to form the Skylarks, who performed and recorded into the 1960s.
"During that time, contemporary [gospel] came in," he says. "Things just turned. The groups out there on the road were having it pretty rough. We figured we had to go back to Nashville, settle down and get us a job."
That's what he did, singing in church while making a living first as a janitor, then as a laborer and finally a supervisor for the city's water and sewer department before retiring in 1992.
Mr. Freeman didn't completely give up music during that time. In 1980, he was recruited for a reunion concert with the Fairfield Four. It took several years for the group to gain steam again.
"By that time, all the groups were using instruments," Mr. Freeman says. "We weren't using anything. We decided we were going a cappella like Fairfield has always been."
A performance at a Nashville-area church gave the Fairfield Four the change that was needed to attract a new audience.
The pastor was wearing overalls, a tuxedo jacket and a bow tie. The group adopted the dress as its new uniform.
"Now everywhere we go, people get mad if we go out there with a suit on," Mr. Freeman says with a laugh.
The group, featured on the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack, has released several albums in the past decade. It has toured or recorded with stars including Elvis Costello, Lyle Lovett, John Fogerty and Steve Earle.
Jerry Zolten, a communications professor at Penn State University who helped the Fairfield Four on the road, suggested that Mr. Freeman record a solo album.
"I was kind of surprised," Mr. Freeman says. "I didn't think anybody ever thought enough of me as a singer to trust me as a solo singer, because I'd been singing bass in a quartet for so long. It's kind of strange, bass singers don't usually come out and do solo things."
He decided to record the album because it gave him a chance to spread his Christian faith.
"I got to thinking, I'm getting on up there now, and maybe if I get a solo record, I'll be seeding, planting seed for later on."


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