Photo by Cameron Packee

The October edition of The Rant Monthly features musicians who “cut their teeth” in Sanford before going on to bigger things. Get a copy to learn about other artists like Black Sheep, Floyd Council, Taylor Phillips and Youth League.

Thursday: Aslan Freeman | Friday: Britton Buchanan | Saturday: Faith Bardill | Sunday: Stephen Brewer

This past February found Aslan Freeman in place he never reasonably thought he’d be — on stage at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.

Freeman, a 2007 graduate of Lee County High School, was performing with singer Lainey Wilson, who’d been invited with her band to take the stage at what is arguably the most important place in country music.

Freeman has been playing guitar with Wilson and acting as her band leader for the past few years. A month earlier, Wilson and Freeman were invited to play at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium — another place so important to country music that it’s known as the “Mother Church” of the genre. The performances were back to back affirmations that Wilson, and Freeman by extension, had arrived, so to speak.

“It’s like any other type of music. Like you think of rock music and indie rock in North Carolina, and if you play at the Cat’s Cradle you know all of your favorite bands have been on that stage,” Freeman told The Rant back in January.

Check out our Spotify playlist featuring Sanford musicians

Like any other working musician, Freeman’s path to success in the business has been long and marked by a lot of hard work. But he’ll be the first to tell you that while he loves what he’s doing — he said he wanted to play music with Wilson as soon as they met because he was immediately impressed with her talent — it’s not at all what he expected.

“The joke I always make is that if it wasn’t for punk rock, country wouldn’t have many players left,” Freeman said in a recent interview, giving a nod to a genre he’d been more familiar with prior to his involvement with Wilson and her band.

That path began here in Sanford, where Freeman got into music as a kid and as a high school student played in a number of bands that fell far more into the alternative/rock realm.

“My mom made me do piano lessons when I was very young, I think before I was 10 probably,” he said. “I absolutely hated it. It was a total drag trying to get me to practice. I was okay, I could play the traditional stuff a kid could play, but then it got to the point where whatever natural ability I had just wasn’t able to keep up with how slack I was. My teacher basically fired me.”

He eventually gravitated toward drums and then guitar, forming those early bands with friends and learning about different types of music as he moved through his teens. That pattern continued when he went on to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro to study music composition. After graduation, he got his first real taste of the music business when his band Unifier (known initially as Future Ghosts) was asked to release an EP on a small label.

“It became pretty clear toward the end of college that Future Ghosts was gonna be the way to go,” Freeman said. “It seemed like it clicked more with people than other stuff we’d done, and it was kind of obvious that we were maybe a little more serious than a lot of people in our friend group.”

And so that small label invested some money and put Freeman and his band on their first tour, setting in motion a several year period in which Unifier would play quite a few shows, release a full length album (Colorado) and a follow-up EP. At the same time, Freeman was getting more serious about recording as well, eventually engineering the final Unifier EP in his parents’ Sanford basement and making some side money here and there doing the same for other bands.

As many acts do, Unifier slowed down after that initial run, but Freeman wanted to keep playing music. He thought Nashville might be a great place to do that — not because of the allure of country music, but because it was a town he’d always had fun visiting and because he thought a change of scenery might be nice.

“Other bands (than Unifier) might have toured a little bit harder and pushed for a little bit longer,” he said. “We put in a quantifiable smaller amount of work (than some other bands), but we still had some success.”

When Freeman got to Nashville, it wasn’t long before he met Wilson, with whom he’s now recorded and released multiple albums and EPs, in addition to extensive touring pre-COVID. As the pandemic has worn on, Freeman said any professional musician has had to adapt, and he and Wilson are no different, recently doing a concert via live stream. He’s also worked recently with Canadian singer Royale Lynn, helping her to write and produce a record.

“Weirdly, I’ve been working with a bunch of Canadian singers,” he said. “Otherwise we’re just trying to write, Lainey and I.”

For Freeman, his early days in Sanford and elsewhere in North Carolina do continue to resonate — sometimes in unexpected ways.

“I mean, what doesn’t stay with you about those early days,” he said. “Particularly with Lainey and me — we’re both from small towns like Sanford, and we can relate to each other in a lot of ways because of that.”

His experience with the rock world informs him as well.

“If you want to keep doing it, you have to keep doing it,” he said. “If you don’t keep showing up, you’re gonna make room for those opportunities.”

— by Gordon Anderson