Life ain't no straight line. It's a corkscrew roller coaster ride of good's and bad's, changing situations and most of our paths take more zig-zags than a Kentucky creek bank.
Freddy French, founder and frontman of the Lead Foot Gearjammers, knows a thing or two about the turns life can take. Still a working truck driver and occasional truck stop troubadour, he's been here, there and everywhere; and it was like that from the beginning.
Ties That Bind
Born in a little town 65 miles west of Nashville, French's parents divorced when he was seven-years-old and, "as kids do, I bounced between mom and dad, so I pretty much grew up here in Chicago between tours and moving to other states for better opportunities that didn't exist," says French, describing himself as a "crazy musician, a Gemini and I'm half Native American and half Irish, so…"
His earliest memories are of his family playing music. "[We count] 17 generations of musicians in my family between my mom and dad," he says. "My earliest memory is my father, his brothers and my cousin, and more, all sitting around in the living room playing bluegrass and recording on a reel-to-reel. I was probably about six or seven."
Maybe that's when French picked up his frenetic nature: he's revved up and ready to go when the gettin's good but has a lot of buckle-down to him, as well. These traits showed up early. "I started playing [guitar] when I was 11- or 12-years-old," French recalls. "When I started going out to the bars at 14 with a flat top and full of piss and vinegar, the old guys thought it was cool. I wasn't a big fan of country, but living in Tennessee, you have to be a fan.
"I cut my teeth on gospel, rockabilly, Johnny Cash, Buddy Holly, Merle Haggard, Hank, Sr., George Jones, Jim Croce, and Gordon Lightfoot," he continues. "Playing with my father, it was a lot of that type stuff, and I was just glad to spend time with my dad. I used his guitar so much I wore the frets off [the neck] and the finish off the back of the neck."
That time was hard to come by as French's dad drove a truck going back into the 1970's, lived through trucker strikes, life on the road in a big rig and what all. "He couldn't get off the road," recalls French of his father, who stayed in Tennessee while his mom came to Chicago. Hence, the "bouncing around." But, out of sadness, good things do still come. "Whenever my dad would come through town, that was my time with my pops. Mostly, I got to see him when I went in the truck with him.
"He picked me up one day when I was nine or ten and said, 'You wanna drive?'. He put me in the front seat in his lap and I steered it down the road and that was the coolest thing a kid could experience. Those are the things I try to remember, but trucking is a really, really hard life that takes you away from your loved ones, you miss the holidays--you miss a lot."
These days, French is recently married and also just happily discovered he had a daughter a couple of years ago, a teenager now. The transition's been tough on the family but rewarding, he says. He's doing his best for her and vice versa. "It's a big part of why I'm getting back into trucking [as we speak] so I can take care of my family and also so that I can promote the band, merchandise…do what I need to do."
This is a guy who knows what he needs to do. "When you have children, they can take you from asshole to a melting butter pot in seconds because their love is unconditional," says French. "They love you no matter what, even when you're a jackass. It's very humbling."
Music and the Open Road
French's ascension into music as a career came the old-fashioned way, a talent show at the county fair, and that settled him on doing the country thing for a while, he says: "Country had this big surge in the '90s and people suddenly got it, so I wrote some songs, sold a couple of them, didn't get very much money," says French. "I went to Nashville trying to be the next Garth Brooks until I walked up and down Music Row and saw these guys playing for quarters and it'd take me a lifetime to get that good."
Then, "it" happened. Hybridization. Catharsis. Genre jumping. Call it what you will. "I didn't really like punk rock at that point, then I got exposed to The Clash and The Ramones when I was about 20," says French, who's 40-years-old now. "A friend of mine in Chicago was in a hardcore punk band and introduced me to them and Social Distortion, which I hated at first. I mean, I'd been playing in a seven-piece country band.
"But listening to Social D., Black Flag, and The Stray Cats changed the way I thought about music because of the lyrics. They were pissed off and they had something to say. It made an impression on me." So did early '90s bands like Nirvana--yes, because of the music but also, again, because "they hit the scene and alternative became mainstream." French finishes his influencers list with R.E.M. and N.W.A., then says it's all these musical experiences put together that gives him a whole new appreciation for the roots music of his youth.
After a five-year stint with the Dirty Water Dogs out of New York, a touring punk band, French moved on, switching genres continuously: punk, country and blues throughout the 1990s. Then, 2000 hit and ready to pay some bills, he bought his first truck and started long-hauling back and forth across the country. "I went to a lot of amazing shows, but otherwise it's pretty miserable. At the same time, I put the Lead Foot Gearjammers together and we started doing local shows and working on original material," says French, who, still driving, kept the band going but couldn't commit fully. "I had a house and a wife, was making a lot of money, and was really miserable." And then setback became catalyst for change as a "nasty divorce" caused him to sell his business and start over.
"When I first started, all I wanted to do was play music for a living, survive," says French. "Then, I got wrapped up in the girls, the drugs, the lifestyle and hopping in a van and finding that limelight. I kinda lost myself, so did a lot of soul searching, sold the trucks and said I don't care about the money any more, this is what I was supposed to do, best or worst."
A guy that doesn't stay down for long, he put the band back together in 2009, just re-married and says she's putting up with him okay--for now--and the Lead Foot Gearjammers are playing regular dates, mostly around the Chicago area. The band's changing in and out as members, you know, live life, but French is, as they say, the driving force and the train keeps 'a' rollin'.
"I don't care if we play for five or 500, I want the crowd to feel like, 'Holy fuck!', that was something," says French. "That's what I try to do, not saying I always pull it off or that I couldn't get better--because that's exactly what I'm trying to do, get a little better every day so it comes through on stage.
"I'm happy playing the music. It's pretty simple, that's what I'm trying to do: play the music, go back to my roots, to bluegrass and country that's raw and alive, like Elvis when he first came out. Get down to your roots and make it pure, that's fucking music to me. We're not there yet. I'm not the best singer or bass player, but we have a lot of drive and a lot of passion and we're not afraid of hard work."
Freddy-isms & Truck Stop Stories
"I'm so broke I put a bag of potato chips on layaway and they're stale when I pick them up."
"I had two amps in my truck and one would be for my drum machine, the other for my guitar. I can remember on numerous occasions sitting at the back of a truck stop with my doors open and having 10-20 truck drivers in a parking lot laid over for a weekend, just sitting around and asking me to play some Merle Haggard, some Johnny Cash or whatever…just playing music for the love of the music.
"You see a lot of bad things out there, a lot of hard luck stories. Young girls selling themselves, crackheads, meth-heads. I had a guy in Bath, Maine, in a little rest area…I'm sitting in my truck with my guitar playing along and I see this guy walking across the parking lot butt fucking naked." What the hell is wrong with people?"
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