In late 2012, longtime Memphis blues/roots musician Jason "Hex" Freeman released his first solo album, Hex & Hell, in digital formats. Now Freeman is rolling out the vinyl version of the record, as well as a new music video for the title track directed by Live From Memphis founder Christopher Reyes, at a show Friday at the Poplar Lounge.
Though born in Memphis, Freeman got his start in "professional" music in the mid-1990s by busking on the streets of rural Arkansas, where his family relocated when he was a teenager. But it wouldn't be long before Freeman would answer the call of his hometown.
"Memphis has everything to do with influencing my path as a musician," he says. "That's why I came back here and am still here. Memphis nurtures me. It's not only my ancestral home but the source of practically everything that influences me musically. I truly believe I was born here in Memphis for a reason."
By the end of the '90s, Freeman had indeed returned to town, and in short order established himself as a fixture on the music scene, both as a solo act and a member of the popular roots-music group the Bluff City Backsliders.
"The Backsliders was originally an all-acoustic jug band. We would refuse to use mics or any electric instruments onstage," Freeman says. "But as you can imagine, that was no fun. Today, we are often fully electric and make no pretenses of trying to fit into any kind of traditionalist's box, even though, in general, we still play traditional material."
Over the next several years of performing around town with various acts — including a healthy stint backing local singer-songwriter Amy LaVere — Freeman began to pile up an impressive catalog of original material. But something always held him back from putting together an album.
"I wanted the first record to be perfect," he says. "Then I came to terms with the fact that it couldn't and wouldn't be. I just knew I had to make something and then set it free out into the world and let it be judged accordingly. The majority of these songs I've been performing in various forms for years now but have never really recorded them, and they are unknown to most people who normally hear me play. But they were songs I loved, and they had real meaning for me. I wanted to find a home for them."
And so, in 2010, he began to lay down tracks for what would become Hex & Hell at Ward Archer's Music + Arts studio complex, with engineer Kevin Houston. To help flesh out the sound, Freeman employed a crack team of notable local musicians, including drummer Daniel Farris (the Coach and Four, Jeffrey James & the Haul), string players Krista Wroten and Jana Misener (the Memphis Dawls), keyboardist Adam Woodard (Jack Oblivian) and LaVere. The final result perfectly pairs Freeman's rugged blues/R&B riffs and uniquely "old-timey" voice with a more contemporary, driving rock-band sound.
"I'm very happy with it and grateful to have had so many creative people work on it," Freeman says. "It was a great process. Kevin Houston can't be thanked enough for the patience and expertise in his engineering that helped facilitate the recording. It was a long journey, but I learned a lot about my abilities as a producer and musician."
What's more, now that Hex & Hell is finally out in all formats, Freeman says he's ready to start making records on a more consistent basis.
"It was a big personal hurdle to jump, but once over, it's put me back on the ground running. I can't wait to get back in the studio and make the next one."
Jason Freeman's Hex & Hell vinyl and video release show
The Poplar Lounge
Friday, February 15th
9 p.m., free
For more information, see hexandhell.com.