A Songster Looks At Forty: Dom Flemons Widens His Scope
It would be something to imagine American music the way Dom Flemons does, to see and hear it from his practiced and erudite perch, because his view is more informed and cinematic than mine. At 40 years old, the self-schooled scholar and self-styled American Songster has emerged as a leading voice and avatar of our folk story, sweeping from Native American music to the African slave trade to Appalachian hollers to Greenwich Village hootenannies to the diverse and chaotic caretaking of our shared inheritance today. It’s a beautiful, contested history, and Dom Flemons has been exploring it since well before he formed the history-making Carolina Chocolate Drops.
All that said, the Dom I speak with in Episode 245 of The String has shifted focus somewhat. The Covid pandemic didn’t just force him (and his wife and young daughter) off the road but to a new home in Chicago. His emphasis turned inward. His most recent release had been 2018’s Black Cowboys, a Grammy-nominated revival and rethinking of Western country music supported by Smithsonian Folkways. As he approached the album that would become the new Traveling Wildfire, out March 24 again on Folkways, he wanted to be as much a songwriter as a songcatcher.
“What I wanted to give to my audience this time was another side of my musical identity - one that would be unexpected to them,” Flemons says. “But it wouldn't feel like it was out of place. In all of the work that I've done with traditional music, one of the first things that I started to notice was a lot of people were asking me what the concept was going to be for the next record. So my artistic mind sort of thought, well, if they're expecting a concept record this fast, then I should probably not give them a full concept record, but try to expand outward.”
Expansive and evolutionary it is, with a flow that suits its imminent LP release. Side one starts with original songs that evoke the baroque folk of Leonard Cohen or Tim Buckley in the late 60s. “Slow Dance With You” and “Dark Beauty” are lush songs of Black love, essentially a forbidden topic on country radio in that era. The title track is an overcast number reflecting the mood of the Covid years with apocalyptic imagery and a slow-thudding marching band bass drum anchoring its soundscape.
Then toward the middle of the record, covers begin to play a role, including a makeover of “We Are Almost Down To The Shore,” a gospel song by an incarcerated Jimmy Strother recorded by John Lomax in the 1930s, which Flemons, in his extensive liner notes, calls “a definitive testament to the resilience of people who have been oppressed, marginalized, and displaced from their homes.” He follows that with his own song “Nobody Wrote It Down,” which may be my favorite track. It builds drama with flashbacks and a refrain that reminds us that whose stories get recorded and remembered is shaped by forces of power, race, and sheer historic accident.
In the second half or side we get more of Dom’s instrumental voices, especially the Piedmont ragtime guitar of “Rabbit Foot Rag” and a proud banjo and accordion duet to close out the project on “Songster Revival.” Also here is a beautifully chosen and arranged take on Bob Dylan’s early “Guess I’m Doing Fine,” which was only released as a demo years after it was first recorded.
All this is shaped by Dom’s musical versatility (he plays 15 different instruments) and a collaborative relationship with producer Ted Hutt, an English who co-founded the band Flogging Molly and who’s worked in the past with The Violent Femmes, The Devil Makes Three and Old Crow Medicine Show. They didn’t know each other prior to the sessions, but “it ended up being a wonderful pairing,” Flemons says.
“He has a great background with roots music, but he also has a very pragmatic way of making sure that you're making a good record, no matter what it might be, really trying to focus in on the songs, getting the best performance possible. And then trying to find something that would just make it sound a little different than what we're used to.” Traveling Wildfire lives up to that brief.
To recap, Flemons grew up in Phoenix, AZ and was burrowing into the blues and busking before he pursued an English degree at Northern Arizona University. He met a mentor, multi-instrumentalist and folklorist Sule Greg Wilson, and when they traveled to Boone in the NC mountains in 2005 for the seminal and now historic Black Banjo Gathering, they found a nascent community that was rediscovering and reclaiming Black folk music, including multi-instrumentalist and singer Rhiannon Giddens. They formed the Sankofa Strings, which soon became The Carolina Chocolate Drops.
With that game-changing band from 2005 to 2013, Flemons won a Grammy award, debuted on the Grand Ole Opry, played every major roots music festival and established a new narrative about African American culture, ushering in dozens of new black voices into folk and bluegrass circles that had previously been almost entirely white. After the Chocolate Drops parted ways and pursued solo careers, Flemons thrived, studying new chapters of history, interpreting old songs and writing songs of his own that feel authentically grounded.
“At a certain point you can tap into the well,” he says.