Happy 80th to Dave Freeman!

Happy Birthday to David Freeman! We hope that you have a wonderful day. 

Dave Freeman’s life has been reasonably-well documented in these pages; with this reflective article in February 2008, and an overview of the 50 years of County Sales published in December 2015.  

So, briefly …. 

On this day … May 22, 1939 … David Freeman was born in New York City far from the bluegrass music heartland.

Freeman’s first exposure to the genre came when he about 14 years old while on a family vacation trip to New Orleans, during which their car radio was tuned to whatever local station happened to be within range. 

On his return he searched for a local area radio station that played the music. Then he encountered the likes of Reno & Smiley and Flatt & Scruggs at rural country music parks such as the New River Ranch and Sunset Park, where he met some like-minded music enthusiasts. These included Bill Vernon. Later, through Vernon, he met another local record collector Charlie Faurot. All three lived in the Brooklyn Heights region of the city. 

Freeman remembers that the first bluegrass album he released probably came from suggestion that Faurot made; a full bluegrass album of new recordings. Freeman, Faurot and Vernon collaborated on many in the early days of County Records. 

This led to the start of the County 700 series, specifically devoted to new material; earlier County releases – in the 500 series – were re-issue compilations of old recordings. 

As Freeman preferred the bluegrass artists who stayed the closest to their old-time roots, it is no surprise that the first bluegrass release was by Larry Richardson & Red Barker and the Blue Ridge Boys – Blue Ridge Bluegrass (County 702, released in 1965). 

In the same vein was two albums by Red Allen & the Kentuckians; Bluegrass Country (704) and Bluegrass Country Vol. 2 (710), released in 1966. The Lilly Brothers; Kenny Baker; the McPeak Brothers; Bill Clifton; Curly Seckler; Randall Collins, Curtis Blackwell & the Dixie Bluegrass Boys; and Norman Blake & Red Rector came later.  

In 1965 Freeman started County Sales, a business that enabled him to quit his day job with the Railway Mail Service. In the beginning, County Sales was run from a New York warehouse until, in 1974, he moved to a farmhouse that he purchased in Floyd, Virginia.

Three years later he set up Record Depot, a warehousing and wholesale distribution facility, in Roanoke, Virginia, that he sold to Chet Rhodes in 2003.

In 1978 Freeman and Barry Poss formed Sugar Hill Records, which in the two years that Freeman retained an interest in company, released LPs by Ricky Skaggs; Boone Creek; The Seldom Scene; the superb eponymous debut album by Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Dan Crary; Vic Jordan; and Buck White & the Down Home Folks. 

On January 1, 1980, Freeman purchased Rebel Records from Dick Freeland, and Freeman immediately had a significant catalog of traditional bluegrass recordings, amounting to over 100 LPs, featuring artists such as Earl Taylor & the Stoney Mountain Boys; Benny & Vallie Cain and the Country Clan; Buzz Busby; Bill Harrell; The Shady Valley Boys; Red Allen & Frank Wakefield; Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys. 

Also, of course, there are the two stellar more progressive bands; the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene and other Washington D.C. area bands like Emerson & Waldron.  

With Rebel Records came material in the King Bluegrass catalog with recordings by Jimmy Martin, Reno & Harrell, Ralph Stanley, The Boys From Indiana, Red Allen & Allen Brothers, The Kentucky Gentlemen, Mike O’Roark & the Free Born Men, and David Marshall & the Gospel Road. 

At about the same time, Freeman took over the management of Kanawha, a label originating in Charleston, West Virginia, that had a couple of LPs by Ron Thomason. 

As well as Rebel Records, Freeman acquired the Leather Records catalogue that included albums by Del McCoury; Bill Harrell & The Virginians; Knoxville Grass and the Front Porch String Band, to mention a few. 

In addition to some of those already mentioned Freeman has helped Kenny Baker, Charlie Waller, Larry Sparks, Rhonda Vincent, the Lonesome River Band, IIIrd Tyme Out, Blue Highway, Lost & Found, Bill Grant & Delia Bell, The Traditional Grass / Joe Mullins, The Forbes Family, Claire Lynch, John Starling, Ronnie Bowman, and Charlie Sizemore in the development of their careers in bluegrass music. 

Also, Freeman has re-issued recordings from the Vetco catalogue, including those by Dave Evans

In 1995 Rebel Records issued the first of its box-sets – a la Bear Family Records; Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys – 1971-73. Two others have followed; Country Gentlemen – Early Rebel Recordings 1962 – 1971 (1998) and Rebel Records: 35 Years of the Best in Bluegrass (2000). All are excellent retrospective collections that emphasize the quality of music that has benefitted from Freeman’s guiding hand. 

From 1965 to 2018, Freeman produced the famous County Sales newsletters that helped collectors worldwide, firstly sent out by mail and then made available electronically. Having reviewed and commented on so much music that’s been issued from during those five decades, Freeman probably has a keener insight on the total scope of the music than anyone involved in bluegrass music. The breadth of artistic talent mentioned herein is evidence of the range of music that he has assessed. 

The International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) has twice honored David Freeman—with a Distinguished Achievement Award in 1989 as well as being inducted into the Hall of Honor (as it was known then) in 2002. 

He retired in January 2018 when County Sales ceased operation. 

Freeman has been a pioneer, setting very high standards for recording, documentation, and production. He created and built distribution channels through which bluegrass – and old time – music was made available to new audiences throughout the world, not just outside the American South. 

Not content with the music produced by others, I understand that he plays guitar, banjo, and mandolin for his own amusement. 

Son Mark Freeman grew up in the business, and today manages most of the operations of County and Rebel Records …. 

“I’ll just say my dad is a great father. He was a busy man running two labels as well as County Sales, and even at one time, Record Depot; plus he’s always had his LP/78 auctions going on! But even with all that, he still had time for me and my siblings, whether it was taking me and my brother to ice hockey practices and games, or going to my sisters’ dance recitals. He always put family before business. It’s been special working alongside him for the past 22 years. 

I’ve learned a lot! Dad, I love you! Enjoy your birthday!”

A few of the artists that David Freeman has helped along the way share some thoughts/greetings on this big birthday.

Paul Adkins and his Borderline Band recorded five albums for Rebel Records …

“David Freeman gave countless musicians a first-class professional conduit to reach fans throughout the world and is an integral part of promoting bluegrass music. I was lucky enough to have most of my recordings with Rebel Records, and for that I’m eternally grateful. Thank you, David! 

Happy birthday and many happy returns! God bless…”

As part of The Traditional Grass, Joe Mullins’ first recordings for Rebel Records were released in 1992 …. 

“I met Dave Freeman as a young 25-year-old banjo player. I held him such high regard then and now for his giant contributions to the bluegrass recording world. I became an artist with Rebel Records and it changed so much for me, allowing my music to be available to all of the radio outlets and retailers interested in bluegrass. Mr. Freeman was so easy to talk with regarding any subject on music sales and distribution, and that has never changed. His straightforward approach to the business of selling recordings is still the same and still successful. 

And my personal collection includes MANY of his great County Records masterpieces. Some of the TOP instrumental recordings that I cling to include the Joe Greene Fiddle Album, Doyle Lawson’s Tennessee Dream ,and Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe – all are masterpieces and still available thanks to Dave Freeman. 

Happy Birthday to a lifelong friend and a passionate promoter of bluegrass and old-time music.”

Tom Gray has featured on Rebel Records albums by the Seldom Scene and on a host of others as a side-man … 

“Happy birthday to David Freeman, the most honorable person in the record business! We’ve been friends for at least 50 of those years, beginning with his auctions of 78s for record collectors.”

Having had his 80th birthday last year, Bill Emerson can relate to this occasion in Freeman’s life ….

“I want to wish Dave Freeman all the best on his 80th birthday. Working with him and his son Mark has always been a good experience. Dave is true gentlemen who’s recording company has made a tremendous contribution to bluegrass music.

Happy Birthday, Dave.”

Tim Stafford remembers working with Freeman in the 1970s ….. 

“Blue Highway recorded with Dave Freeman and Rebel for three years, on our first three albums. 

There’s not a more professional, thoroughly honest and upfront guy in the business, and I’m really glad we had a chance to work together. He has a keen sense of tradition and fairness, and he sees the big picture. 

Happy 80th birthday Dave! We need more guys like you.”

Larry Sparks’ first recordings for Freeman were released on the County label in 1977 ….. 

“I want to wish Mr. Dave Freeman a happy birthday today May 22, 2019.

Dave has been a long-time friend in our bluegrass and Gospel music for many years, since back in the ‘70s, and has kept the name Rebel Records out front as he did for all the artists that recorded for Rebel, including myself. 

Dave has done so very much for bluegrass music, and promoted the music over the years and helped to make it what it is today. Rebel Records has become a major label for bluegrass and I’m glad to still be recording with Rebel.

Again, Happy Birthday Dave and wishing you many more to come.

May God Bless, Larry Sparks.”

As well as Faurot, Poss and Rhodes, Freeman mentored Richard Nevins and Chris King. Another who benefited from Freeman’s supervision was former Rebel Records’ production co-ordinator, Gary Reid, who remembers Freeman’s qualities … 

“Dave – Happy Birthday! Congratulations on achieving octogenarian status!

I don’t know that I have a specific memory that reveals Dave’s character. In general, I’ve always found him to be a straight-shooter… if he tells you he’s going to do something, you can take it to the bank! He really cares about the music and its makers. In packaging music, he has always sought to present a quality product while keeping a watchful eye on the bottom line; it’s a trait that has served him well. Through his 50+ years of thoughtful editorializing by way of the County Sales Newsletter, he has influenced several generations of bluegrass and old-time music enthusiasts. He certainly helped to inform my tastes as I was first being introduced to the music.”

Penny Parson, author of the Curly Seckler biography, Foggy Mountain Troubadour, worked with Freeman in a variety of capacities, including production, publicity, and the writing of liner notes, among other tasks … 

“Dave Freeman has been one of the most important mentors for me for the duration of my nearly forty years of working in the bluegrass industry. One of the things I most admire about Dave is his integrity. Not only was he always straightforward with the artists he worked with, he stayed true to his own instincts and would only release music that he himself loved and believed in. Although he is soft-spoken and not aggressive with his views, he has been a major force and influence in the bluegrass industry. Through his record labels (Rebel and County), his mail order business (County Sales), his auctions, and his distribution company (Record Depot), he provided services across the board, for artists, retail stores, radio stations, and bluegrass fans alike. Although he worked tirelessly for many years at all of these endeavors, he never lost his basic love for the music. Thank you, Dave, for sharing your musical passion with us, and for preserving and disseminating its rich legacy.”

As do many people, Dudley Connell saw great benefit in the Freeman’s excellent reviews in the County Sales Newsletters, which alerted customers to new additions to Freeman’s stock …..

“Through his important work with County Records and later Rebel, Dave influenced and introduced many of us to important recordings with liner notes explaining why they were important and significant. In addition to his producing and writing, his catalog and distribution of recordings through County Sales changed the industry for the better.  For me personally, I would save my money and anxiously await the next issue of the County Sales Newsletter. The reviews alone became somewhat of a bible to me as a young record collector who just couldn’t get enough of what I still consider to be “the good stuff.” Thank you, David, for your contributions to this music and for helping formulate and guide my tastes. 

Birthday greetings to an important influence on my musical career, my friend David Freeman. 

Happy birthday my friend.”

David Freeman’s first customers were in the British Isles, readers of Country News and Views magazine. 

John Atkins is just one of the many in the U.K. whose music collections show how much Freeman has influenced tastes…… 

“We all owe a massive debt to Dave Freeman. His County Records label for many of us was a gateway to a world of country music that would not have been available to many of us. Charlie Poole was one whose music was completely revived by Freeman, plus his many great compilations of regional string bands, and I am pleased to say I collected every one of the 500 series over the years. Who could also forget his recordings in the 700 series, in particular those two early albums of Red Allen, still among the most straight ahead bluegrass records ever recoded, plus I could not fail to mention the many great recordings of Tommy Jarrell. Perhaps the great legacy of the 700 series will be the many recordings by Kenny Baker. The Kenny Baker County albums will undoubtedly be the bible of both source material and style for tomorrows fiddle players.

I had the pleasure of traveling in the USA with Dave. His knowledge and appreciation of the music was second to none. He was also great company and it was easy to see the respect he enjoyed from artists, collectors, and everyone associated with acoustic music. He also had great integrity and would neither make, nor release records that did not meet his values. A wonderful human being and he should be so proud to have made a living and made such a great lasting contribution to the music he loves.

Congratulations Dave on reaching 80. I’ll bet your enthusiasm for the music is still the same as it was when we first met over 40 years ago.”

Mike Craig used to run Mike’s Country Music Room in Aberdeen, Scotland, a business that benefited hugely from Freeman’s integrity ….. 

“What does the name Dave Freeman mean to me? In a musical sense, everything. In the fifty years I have known Dave he has been a beacon of light in the bluegrass/old timey fraternity. A humble man of passion, integrity, honesty, and of course, a pioneer in the bluegrass world. Willing to share his knowledge, if asked, and always supportive. When I moved from a buyer of his product to setting up my own mail order business in Scotland, on the lines of County Sales, Dave was very encouraging inasmuch as he gave me a line of credit to assist me in obtaining stock. Such is his standing in the business, when I contacted other record companies, as soon as they knew that I dealt with Dave they supplied me almost immediately on his recommendation. I reckon there are not many people in the musical world who would do that, and he was supportive in many other ways over the next 30 years. What people often forget is that Dave distributed many small regional labels, who previously had no distribution, worldwide, taking regional bands to a worldwide audience. And no one will forget how he brought Charlie Poole to a wide and large audience through the classic County releases. 

Dave, enjoy your retirement, relaxing with your family. You are indeed one of a kind and will be missed. I am certainly grateful for all the advice and friendship you shared, unselfishly with me.”

Sab ‘Watanabe’ Inoue, along with other Japanese bluegrass enthusiasts, owes a huge debt to Freeman for the great influence that he had upon the development of bluegrass music in his country …. 

“A year before David started County Records in 1963, he met the late Tatsuo Arita at Stanley Brothers’ show in New York City. Since that time, Japanese bluegrass owes a lot to David and his County Newsletters.

Mr. Arita was a businessman who visited the US in the early ’60s, and the true pioneer in Japanese bluegrass who encouraged us to form the first ever bluegrass-like band in Japan. The East Mountain Boys were formed under the direction of Mr. Arita at American Folk Music Society (AFMS) in Osaka, and their first show was aired on the radio in October 1958, which was the same year when the first bluegrass recordings, Blue Ridge Cabin Home / Jimmie Brown, the Newsboy, by Flatt and Scruggs was released in Japan. Since 1958, Mr. Arita was the driving force to recognize bluegrass in Japan, even the members of East Mountain Boys knew nothing about bluegrass.

After Mr. Arita’s meeting with David in 1962, Japanese bluegrass launched into another level. David’s newsletters were the most important information about the records which was the only accessible tool we can touch and feel bluegrass in Japan. It was more important than information from magazines which was written in English. David’s information on his newsletter was simple and honest. It was easy to understand for non-English speakers. Bluegrass was sung in English, which most of the Japanese people can’t understand, but it was not a big problem as the music itself, I think. We feel music as a total message of sound and song (voices), but not the specific meanings of the lyrics. People can feel music in that way, I believe. I was lucky to know Mr. Arita when I was in Junior high. He was introduced to me by my brother, Toshio.

I visited David right after my first US visit as the member of Bluegrass 45 in September of 1971. County Sales was more important for me than visiting the Grand Ole Opry, of course. Since 1976, I organized the Bluegrass Tour, and I took a lot of Japanese bluegrass fans to County Sales, which was heaven for the Japanese bluegrass fans for almost 20 years into the mid 1990s. When my son was born in 1981, I asked my brother Toshio to take over the tour bi-yearly, though. Especially driving down to the Blue Ridge Mountains and its Parkway was the highlight of the tour. Still Blue Ridge Cabin Home is the most famous bluegrass song in Japan, since it became the first song for the beginners to play.  County moved to Floyd VA in 1974 from NYC.

David was born in 1939, the same year as Bill Monroe renamed his new string-band to Blue Grass Boys. David loves old time music from the 1920s, however I’m sure David will be pleased to have the same life as bluegrass does. I believe that David Freeman is the most influential and key person for Japanese enthusiast to understand the history of American string-band music since day one!

Happy Birthday David Freeman!”

All at Bluegrass Today wish David Freeman many Happy Birthday greetings, hoping that has a very enjoyable day and continues to enjoy retirement for many years to come.  

Special thanks to Gary Reid for his help assembling this piece.

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.