Dom Flemons – looking forward and back at the same time

Dom Flemons is one of those unique artists who is as dedicated to education as he is to entertaining. Not that he comes across as any sort of stern lecturer or headmaster. His dedication to bringing the archival traditions of Appalachia and the role the early black musicians played in its progress, have made him the essence of what it means to be a timeless troubadour. 

It’s been that way since early on, when his early interests in the artists that inspired him — Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and Chuck Berry — led him to dig deeper into the firmament of folk tradition, courtesy of artists like Woody Guthrie, Tom Paxton, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. He pursued that passion by busking and participating in poetry slams within the Arizona environs where he was raised, developing his skills on banjo, fife, guitar, harmonica, percussion, quills, and rhythm bones in the process. By the time he joined the pioneering African American Grammy-winning string band, Carolina Chocolate Drops, he was fully immersed in the musical heritage of American folklore, and after eight years, five albums, and an EP, he eventually decided to pursue a solo career full-time.

Now, with five of his own albums under his belt, including his 2018 offering, Black Cowboys, which garnered a Grammy nomination Best Folk Album and a Blues Music Award in the Acoustic Music category, he’s rightfully earned the handle by which he’s now known, The American Songster. 

Exceedingly gracious as always, he offered Bluegrass Today an opportunity to talk about his life and legacy and, of course, the mission he maintains as far as bringing tradition to the fore and inspiring others to do the same. 

You may recall we met backstage at the first Earl Scruggs festival, after you finished your set and you were getting ready to make your way back home. We have mutual friends and, of course, I dropped their names right away.

Well, it’s so good to talk with you.

So let’s start by discussing the educational aspect of what you do. From an outsider’s perspective, it clearly seems as important to you these days as the entertainment aspect of your performances. Would you not agree?

I do think that they go hand in hand with each other. There are so many different elements to the songs that I do, so I do try to bring an educational element into it, even within my performance of the songs, the ways that they’re written, the styles that I’m playing, and even the words to several of them as well. They all fit into that. I try not to spend too much time belaboring the educational points with the audience, but I feel like the music tells the audience a lot of the history with the way they’re written.

So when did you first develop a passion for bringing this historical music to the fore?

After starting to play professionally around 2005, I found that once I started to travel, playing the old time music sort of came naturally. Then, around 2014 or so, I started to see that as digital technology began to become the dominant form of mass media people were taking in. I started to become a lot more conscious of trying to write music that would educate people through the composition itself, because I found that a lot of times, people were consuming the music in a much different way. I also found that attention spans were becoming a bit shorter, and I realized that it was important to start figuring out ways to not only interpret older songs, but to tell a story. I found that in writing new songs, it was important to figure out ways to tell stories that were not as well known. And so I started making a more conscious effort to do that.

It seems like you’re almost toeing the line between reverence for the tradition and moving it ahead at the same time, while creating original work that reflects the traditional template. Do you find that it’s almost like walking a tightrope, so to speak, given that you bring these other elements into the mix to make it a bigger and greater sums of its parts?

I think that in some ways, it’s just part of what went on. When I get in front of an audience, I find that it’s something that people are appreciating, because it brings a certain authenticity to the performance. It’s about being able to have this bigger story, so that it becomes a multilayered message. And so in a certain way, it’s one of those things where I try to bring a lot to each song and to take the audience on a journey, whether it’s a very short song or a much longer song. Sometimes I try to embed some type of memory that I have from when I learned a certain lick or a certain way of playing. I try to present that to the audience so that they can appreciate it a different way when they hear it. It’s one of those things that I’ve become much more conscious of, especially as I’ve been presenting more original material. I’m trying to find those spaces where the audience can expand their own knowledge of the music just through hearing the songs. When you hear it in the song, you get to hear the drama, and you get to hear the the movement and the beat and the rhythm and that gives you a flavor of of what those those old days were like.

I have to imagine that it’s not always easy being up there by yourself just trying to capture the attention of an audience. People’s attention spans are very fickle nowadays, and so when it’s just you up there and you don’t have a backing band to share the spotlight, it must be kind of intimidating or challenging. You’ve been doing it a while, so does it get any easier?

When I started to play out as a solo performer, any nervousness I had about playing for an audience by myself I used to translate that into a certain energy that I could project out off of the stage. And so nowadays, it’s actually kind of a thrill to be able to stand up there on my own and to be able to hold an audience’s attention. Over the years, I’ve figured out different ways to be able to craft my performance in my set so that I have enough songs and stories that can hold the audience’s attention. I like to play for an audience and to show the power of a solo performer. A lot of the musicians that I’ve respected and have listened to are solo performers without backing bands. And so just to be able to present that to an audience is something that I take a lot of pride in doing.

You’ve been the recipient of numerous awards, kudos, and accolades. Do you feel like you’ve been placed on a pedestal and that suddenly you have to live up to expectations? Does that put added pressure on you? 

Every once in a while, I’ll get to thinking about it. But one of the things that keeps me on level ground is knowing that from the beginning, I started out as a fan of music, and that the enthusiasm that I brought with me to the professional realm of music is something that still drives me to this day. I try to just always think back to my of being a fan of music and the enthusiastic I had for that. That allows me to kind of sidestep the pressure of being someone who’s gotten the fame and received awards or has been elevated in different ways. It’s about being able to keep a little spot in my heart that remains the pure fan who first started out on this journey.

Still, you have become known for bringing this traditional music back full circle, while also  creating new music that’s in that same spirit. So is it still a major part of your mission to get black musicians to reclaim their part of the Appalachian music experience?

Absolutely. I would say that I’m still dedicated to that idea of having more African American people involved and playing Appalachian music, and also appreciating it, learning it, and reinterpreting it. I’m definitely interested in continuing that mission. It’s actually been quite amazing to see that after close to 20 years since starting with the Carolina Chocolate Drops there have been quite a few different musicians who have wanted to take on this music. There’s also been a national conversation about the reclaiming of the music. So the thing that I’ve noticed and have been most surprised by, has been the deeper philosophical and theoretical discussion about African American contributions to Appalachian music, and to bluegrass, and to country.

You’re referring to a broader national discourse then…

It’s gone beyond the specialized community of Appalachian music, and has now become a full national conversation. I think that those are all very good things to have in the mix. However, I still haven’t seen a full African American string band come out of that, one that’s playing old time music like we did in the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Our group was doing a sepia toned version of the New Lost City Ramblers, in terms of reinterpreting old time music and presenting it in a very traditional style. That’s something I haven’t seen yet, but which I hope to see some point down the line.

But I’m also interested in still elevating those stories that people have not heard before, you know, talking about the relevance of some of the folks from the folk revival that lean into black Appalachian music. I feel like there’s been a lot of information that has come out about some of the musicians, but I still think that there could always be more that could be done. There’s a lot of great music, that people need to hear. And so that’s something that I’m always interested in… presenting the music and disseminating it out to people. That’s something that hasn’t gone away. It’s just sort of changed over the past several decades, because at first it was more of a culture thing of mix tapes you were able to give to people. You could kind of package it up for people. 

So what changed?

Nowadays, so much of the music is available online. It’s changed the nature of how people are getting into music. And then of course, social media, videos and things like that allow people to connect to it in so many more ways than they were able to before. It used to be communicated through a grapevine that involved people meeting in person. That’s changed quite a bit over the years with the new technology. It’s been very interesting and exciting to watch because now there are people who are interested in wanting to play it and sharing it with others.

Are you actively involved in seminars and panel discussions at different forums? 

I am, I will get invited to places like Folk Alliance, and do online panels and things like that to talk about the music and the history. It’s a little bit of both. Of course, the concerts are the main way I like to get the music out there. I’m very pleased to say I’m getting an award from the  Southeast Regional Folk Alliance this May.

With all those instruments that you play, are you self taught? How did that develop?

My only formal training was on percussion and drums. I started out in grade school playing percussion and drums, but I picked the guitar and all of the stringed instruments all on my own. With percussion, you’re always introduced to a world of multiple instruments. And so that was kind of what got me started into thinking about playing a bunch of different instruments. I moved on to the guitar and harmonica, and then just started teaching myself how to play, and after that, I got into the banjo.

It sort of just continued from there. I would find an instrument and it’d become something that I took a fancy to, and then I tried to learn everything I could about it. That was part of how I was able to learn all these instruments. Once I started to hear fife and drum music it took me back to my drumming background. I played in the marching band in high school, so I was I was drawn to the way they had bass drums and snare drums and fife and drum music. So then I started to learn how to play the fife. It was similar to jug band music.

I had heard about jug band music by listening to people like Jim Kweskin’s jug band and some of the ’60s groups, and from there I got into the ’20s groups. I just got that notion to learn it. There weren’t a lot of teachers of course, so I had to just start figuring out to make the tone on the jug. How to blow into it. But slowly, steadily I figured out a method of playing, so then I was able to take that with me when I left Arizona and I became one of the few modern African American jug players. I don’t know if there’s anybody else that’s really taking it on and gone anywhere with it. But I came into the scene as a jug player.

There again, that makes you stand out. It appears that you’ve never forgotten your roots.

It was such a natural journey backwards. And of course, I came up at a time when so much of the of this music was being repackaged, and things were being reissued. There was sort of a golden age for CDs to bring a lot of this music back to the forefront. I was fortunate that I came up at a time where there were a lot of Smithsonian Folkways recordings that were out there on CD, and being issued at that time, and there were labels that were they were putting out albums that I would collect, like the old Yazoo records. It was just a wonderful time to be a fan of all the old time roots music, because you could see a timeline to that would take you from the ’70s and back into the ’60s, the ’50s and into the ’40s. And it was very easy to be able to reach back in a way that was very multifaceted.

I think that was a very unique moment in American musical history, because it, it was right before the internet. It was a time where a collective memory as and the release of all this older music kind of converged at the same time. So with all of this music I was listening to, I had to physically pick it up and physically listen to it. And then I could also read the liner notes and get my information from there. So I was very active in being able to take in the knowledge and the information of that music. So it was, it was a nice moment to be able to have both of those things as compared to now.

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About the Author

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman has been a writer and reviewer for the better part of the past 20 years. He writes for the following publications — No Depression, Goldmine, Country Standard TIme, Paste, Relix, Lincoln Center Spotlight, Fader, and Glide. A lifelong music obsessive and avid collector, he firmly believes that music provides the soundtrack for our lives and his reverence for the artists, performers and creative mind that go into creating their craft spurs his inspiration and motivation for every word hie writes.