WEB ONLY: Dom Flemons talks about folk music, race and NC

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Interview by Jordan Green

Dom Flemons, a 33-year-old song collector, singer and multi-instrumentalist who primarily plays the banjo, is a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Along with Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson, Flemons helped cement the status of Piedmont black string band music.

Billed as “the American songster,” Flemons left the Chocolate Drops in 2013 to pursue a solo career, allowing him to stretch beyond the parameters of the old-time idiom. A traditionalist in his own right, Flemons’ tastes are somewhat more wide-ranging and eclectic than those of his former bandmates, ranging from jug-band music to ’50s rock and roll.

An Arizona native, Flemons first came to North Carolina in 2005 to attend the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone. He liked the laidback feel of the state, the friendliness of the people and the rich music scene. For a time during his stint with the Chocolate Drops he lived in New York City, but moved back in 2013, making his home in Hillsborough near his label, Music Maker Relief Foundation. As a series of outtakes from his 2004 album Prospect Hill, Flemons’ new EP What Got Over is a sort of companion to that album.

Dom Flemons performs at the Crown in Greensboro on Sunday. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. and the show starts at 8. Visit carolinatheatre.com for ticket information.

I saw you perform solo in a storefront in Greensboro in 2007 before a handful of people, so it’s really a treat to talk to you now, since your career has really taken off.

“It’s been quite a journey since then. That was the first year [the Carolina Chocolate Drops] had gone full-time as a musical unit. Since 2013, I have been slogging away as a solo unit. I took the model of my mentor, Mike Seeger, who worked with the New Lost City Ramblers before he started performing solo. I’m really enjoying it. I’ve got a new album out, a special edition record store release that I put out for Record Store Day. Basically when I did the session for Prospect Hill I wanted to have too much stuff recorded. So I did 30 tracks all together. With What Got Over I wanted to do a more artsy-type record. I didn’t do that much instrumental stuff on Prospect Hill. I’ve got four on What Got Over. I wanted to release it for Record Store Day. I’ve been a big fan of that since it started 10 years ago. One thing that’s kind of nice is if you put the audio together for Prospect Hill and What Got Over, it’s an hour long. Instead of 40 minutes for Prospect Hill and 20 minutes for What Got Over, you get an hour.”

Prospect Hill is a town in Caswell County. What parts of North Carolina do you see in that album?

“Do you have the hard copy of Prospect Hill? No? There are a lot of great pictures of a wonderful general store, the Warren Family General Store. It’s a perfectly preserved general store. It was a commissary and Victor Records distribution outlet. It connected Mebane, Yanceyville, Prospect Hill and Hillsborough. It was the capital of North Carolina for about six months. It had such a deep history to it that we made it the theme to the liner notes with pictures.

“All the albums I’ve put together with the Chocolate Drops, the titles are multilayered. Prospect Hill is prospect of the future and the hills are the hills you have to go over. That kind of reflects what it’s like taking this next step in my career.

“It was the first place I got to go where I got to really feel the culture of the South. The first time I came to North Carolina was for the Black Banjo Gathering at App State in Boone. I really fell in love with the people and the culture of North Carolina.”

You’re a native of Arizona. What attracted you to North Carolina? 

“I moved to New York City for awhile. I moved back to North Carolina in 2013 because I really liked the laid-back vibe, particularly in the central Piedmont. There are so many musicians that come out of North Carolina, not just the old-time music but jazz and blues. I’m also amazed at how deep the musical roots go. Also Music Maker Relief Foundation, their headquarters is in Hillsborough. It’s a source of inspiration.”

How does playing as a solo artist with your own group compare to playing with the Chocolate Drops?

“It’s a lot nicer. There’s a good collective idea that we had with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, which was always appealing. To go out with my own group is nice. Some of the musical things that I couldn’t accomplish in the Carolina Chocolate Drops I can do in my trio. Rhiannon and Justin only knew a couple keys to play in — A, D and G. It’s been really liberating to be able to sing in my natural keys, which include E flat and F. I still play old-time numbers in the normal keys of A, D and G.

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The Dom Flemons Trio (photo by Tim Duffy)

“My interest is in old-time music, but I really cover the spectrum of a lot of American music. I head learned at the Black Banjo Gathering — that was the first time I had heard there was a living black banjo traditions. Before that, it was like jug music, early jazz, folk music, country. That was the first time I met Joe Thompson, who would be a very essential part of what the Carolina Chocolate Drops did. I was into the songsters. They were the prototype blues singers; they were the prototype country singers…. The songsters fit in the area where blues scholarship didn’t know where to place them. Leadbelly is the quintessential songster type of guy I was interested in. When I met Joe Thompson and he played the fiddle and banjo music, that was the template for what the songster was.

“To be able to come in as a young person of color, I found that very empowering. I had an interest in a lot of different types of music. I didn’t see a lot of models for it or a place to fit myself into it until I met Joe Thompson. Black cowboys, that’s another part of the culture that has drawn me in as a person from the Southwest with mixed heritage. I’m black and Mexican.

“For me as a person of the 21st century having access to a lot of digital information, I’m doing what a lot of my forebears have done: I’m taking what I’ve heard and making my own statement with it. What I found with Joe was an actual living person and a living tradition. He could say, ‘Yeah, we did square dances back then.’ He’s someone that could speak to the experience. This whole type of music wasn’t relevant to the black community at that time. The manifesto of black culture moves along with the Great Migration to the North and Midwest. The people who have been representing it are liberal, middle-class white people, which isn’t bad, but it’s not for black people.

“So here’s a person who can actually teach it to me. Those are the subtle things that I’ve learned along the way. So that people from the South can say, ‘Oh yeah, that sounds right.’ You don’t have to have it, but it really enhances the music. It’s kind of like speaking a language. If this isn’t your first language, you might not exactly use the right words and you’re going to speak it with a heavy accent. I can understand what you’re saying, but I can tell right away that it’s not your first language.

“The country’s obsessed with the idea of a white guy who can sound black but they’re never obsessed with the type of black musician who can sound white.”

That makes me think about electronic dance music. You can have a black person making it or a white person making it, but you don’t hear the ethnicity of the artist. I’m contrasting that with the golden age of soul or funk, when the music was very much identified with black experience. 

“Racial identify is very important for music, not so much with dance music. Dance music is made with artificial instruments. It’s all going to sound the same. If you take an instrument and learn to play it, everyone is going to play it differently because your own way of playing it can’t help but come through. There’s room for it all; I’m not saying one way is better than another.

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Photo by Cornelius Lewis

“Racial identity is important. If you got somebody doing a blues song and they’ve lived the experience, that comes through. If you see a mariachi band that is steeped in tradition, it’s great. Others can play it, but it’s not the same. There’s nothing like actually hearing the real thing.

“When you look into the folklore people go to a library, and they say, ‘Oh that’s what it is.’ But that’s not necessarily the case. Everyone has an agenda, malicious or not, and makes decisions about what they want to highlight and what they want to leave out. I caught the tail end of the library when you had to go to the library and pull out the microfilm. You would spend the whole day in the library and you had to read as much as you could before they closed. Now, most of the stuff is online. People younger than me don’t have the standard stuff. It hit me a couple years ago that a lot of the Chocolate Drops music was now in the library. That was becoming the history of black string band music.

“Prior to that, string band music from western North Carolina was the main thing. Bascom Lamar Lunsford was the main guy pushing that idea. When we came along we started pushing Piedmont string band music. At that time, people were talking about Piedmont blues. That was guitar music, but you could also kind of fit it together with banjo and fiddle music. That was our main contribution.”

You’re a curator of songs. What is it that you’re looking for when you try to find a song from the culture and bring it back to the fore?

“I had about 15 years that I was studying the stuff before the internet became the standard thing. I’m 33 years old. Searching out music that is not the standard repertoire is what I’m into. You’re not seeing me play Robert Johnson or Charlie Patton songs. I’m more into guys like Henry Thomas or Papa Charlie Jackson, people who have been on the outskirts.

“If you do Robert Johnson, you better do it like Robert Johnson; otherwise you’re going to get dumped on. Papa Charlie Jackson not so much. If you do Papa Charlie Jackson, there are five guys who love Papa Charlie Jackson, and you’re going to make friends for life. I still play his song, ‘Your Baby Ain’t Sweet Like Mine,’ which I performed with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. I reworked it a little bit to fit my needs.

“There are a couple articles coming out that say all pop music sounds the same. That’s because everybody’s drinking from the same stream. Everybody has the same filter, the same beat, so it’s bound to sound the same. When I heard folk music in the late 1990s, this was a time when rap-rock was coming out, I was like, ‘This is so unique. There is a space between the notes.’…

“In rock music, it’s not just a band playing. There’s reverb on the voice, the ambience on the guitar. There’s so much in the recording. It’s nice to have the unprocessed sound of folk music. It really shakes you to your core. When you hear it, you say, ‘Why haven’t I heard this before?’

“I have a lot of different instruments like the bones, harmonica, fife and quills. I have ‘Big Head Joe,’ my six-string banjo. It sounds so unique. I know for a fact that nobody’s playing this. Well, there have always been bone players. They show up in very strange places. One of the most famous bones songs is the Harlem Globe Trotters theme, ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ by Brother Bones. A lot of people don’t realize that’s a bones song. That’s one of my main things with curating stuff, is unusual instruments.”

When you first started trying to learn how to play these instruments, was there any difficulty in terms of finding a template? 

“It took awhile to get the feel and get the subtleties of it. There was a template for all of it because I went to the library and looked it up. That’s how I found my template for it. My good friend and mentor Mike Seeger, who just passed away, he was very good at showing me that no matter what you do you’re still going to sound like yourself. You have to immerse yourself in the style. People can tell when you know what you’re talking about.

“We’ve gotten so hung up that music is artistic expression. Traditional music is based on the opposite idea that this is right, this is wrong. That’s something we’ve bred out of American music. I like the structure of traditional music.”

Do you feel like you can express yourself through a song that you’ve curated or do you have to write your own song to get that? 

“I can do both. I wrote several different older-style songs. ‘Too Long I’ve Been Gone’ is in a ’60s folksinger style.

“In the post-digital revolution everyone feels like you need to push against the envelope. But where’s the envelope? A couple years ago I said, ‘I’m going to stick to trying to make good music.’ I want to make music where if I heard it, I would say, ‘Oh yeah, I like this. This is something I’d listen to myself.’ I can write a song or interpret a song. If I do a cowboy song and yodel — I’m from the Southwest — that’s from my background.

“That’s a mental hang-up that we’ve taught our musicians that you have to redefine yourself every time you perform. That killed musicians. That’s why so many singer-songwriters are manic-depressive. I’ve tried to do everything. I try to keep all the types of my repertoire in good shape so if I need to I can whip out a Simon & Garfunkel song.”

Both your career and Rhiannon Giddens’ career have really taken off in the past couple years. Do you think there’s a possibility the two of you will perform again? 

“I would imagine eventually I think we would play together one day. We did a lot of great stuff over the years. It’s good that Rhiannon’s over on her island doing her thing, and I’m over on my island doing my thing. Who knows?”

The National Folk Festival was just in Greensboro and every year they never repeat the same artists. Do you have any interest in playing the folk festival next year and have you had any conversations about that? 

“This year I was busy doing another festival. That gets into the business end of it. You’d have to talk to my booking agent. You know, I’d love to play there. For me, I’m a pretty open book. Greensboro has always been a very good audience. So yeah, I would be into that.”