by Jack Dodson for The Pilot (Southern Pines, NC)
The gutted body of a U-Haul van sits built into Kenny Freeman’s porch between his house and his auto repair shop in West End, acting as an unlikely music studio.
Kenny Freeman, the owner of an auto body shop in West End, recently finished work on his first country album, Labor of Love. It’s entirely his own product, too — he plays all the instruments, sings every song, and did the mixing and editing. Freeman hopes one day a Nashville star will pick up his CD and record one of the songs, and he’s just started work on a new album.
With the outside draped in camouflage and the inside boasting thousands of dollars worth of musical recording equipment, it was here that Freeman recorded his first album this spring.
Freeman, 44, spends his nights inside the renovated U-Haul, an air-conditioned makeshift studio with a section added to the original body of the van, his hands dirty from working on cars. Here he wrote and recorded “Labor of Love,” a country album released in April — one he hopes will soon grab the attention of an established Nashville star.
Since he ordered 3,000 copies of the album, he gives away the album to whoever wants it, distributing it around the local area and to places like Nashville and New York. He even sent 100 copies to Australia, where he says country music is gaining popularity.
It’s not about the money for him; it’s the product of a lifelong goal. It’s about having something to leave behind, Freeman says, something that might remind a listener of their own life, making them laugh or cry.
“I always figured if I could write a song that helped someone through a tough time, made them laugh, or just made them feel better, that it was worth it,” he says. “Writers write. You can’t help it — it’s just something you do. I’ve spent most of my life with music bouncing around in my head.”
For Freeman, this studio “man cave” is a place to get away and to chase his dreams.
“I call it my healing time,” Freeman says. “Running a large business takes its toll on me mentally. And (music) is my escape.”
He has this deep, raspy country voice, made raw by cigarettes. It sounds almost like Tom Waits, just with a country edge to it, and it gets deeper as he sings.
“I do everything in the world to hurt my voice,” Freeman says. “Once I start singing, getting those vocal cords loose, I get lower, I get clearer. I sound like a monster.”
The songs themselves fluctuate between serious and fun. One track describes living life on the beach as a Caribbean cowboy. Another tackles trying to figure out how to thank a mother for all she does. A third makes fun of the idea that everything in life requires a signature.
Freeman has experience writing songs — he estimates he’s written over 1,000 songs in his lifetime. The title of the album is appropriate to him because writing songs is what he loves to do, and putting out the album was more about that than anything else.
After playing music for about 30 years, this is the first time he’s recorded an album, despite having played countless shows with larger groups like Mark Chesnutt and Turnpike.
For 10 years, Freeman says, a friend and fellow country musician, Mike Thamm, had pushed him to finish the album, but until that point he had a pile of unfinished songs. Midway through recording in the spring, Freeman found out Thamm had died while at work on his houseboat.
“When they came in and told me,” he says, “I was like, ‘Get out. Forget it — ain’t no way. I just saw Mike.’”
It was then, he says, he realized how quickly life can change, and he started working on the album that night. He says he started hibernating in his recording studio, pushing through to complete the album.
“That could have been me,” he says, “and I don’t want to leave just yet with this unfinished work. I want it done.”
Going It Alone
The songs on Freeman’s album range from low-key, melancholy ballads about love and relationships to upbeat and just-for-fun songs about being at the beach or “Make Up Loving.” And on all of them, Freeman plays alone.
He recorded all the tracks on the album, played all the instruments and did the mixing and editing by himself. The only thing he didn’t do alone was the actual manufacturing and distribution.
He says it’s because he trusts his own judgment the most. The album should be something he thinks people will like, but ultimately, he wants to call the shots on how the songs will sound. The songs become his own that way, he says. He adds his own outlook on life into the songs — his thoughts on happiness and sorrow, or work and play.
“I think you get a better product when you get different inputs from different sources,” he says. “But at this stage in my career, I like the total control. If there’s a failure, there’s no one to blame but me.”
And for him, it becomes more personal that way. He knows exactly what he wants to do with the songs before he even sits down to record them, and he says he can’t please everyone — he might as well trust his own judgment.
“It’s like putting out a piece of your heart,” he says. “Some people are going to embrace it, and some people are going to step on it — that’s human nature.”
Freeman says he’ll start working on a new album soon — he even estimates he’s already written probably 10 songs since “Labor of Love” was released. But for now he says his first album is still in its infancy and he’s seeing where that will take him.
With copies of the album floating around Nashville and a few in Atlanta and New York, he’s hoping someone will like what they hear and give him a call. Since the release in April, he’s enjoyed radio play and success on OurStage.com, a website that partners with MTV to rank musicians. He’s also had people from around town come in asking him for copies of the album.
He says he would be happy to have a well-known country singer start recording his songs; he’s not trying to become famous himself. He just enjoys writing his music and sharing it. And that’s what it’s about for him, making the music and getting it out there for others to hear and enjoy.
“You can write songs and put them in the desk all day long,” he says. “But if you don’t take a chance and throw it out there, then people can’t appreciate it.”