Tuned Into History

“I’ve always been interested in singing stuff that is not well known,” says Dom Flemons.

“I’ve always been interested in singing stuff that is not well known,” says Dom Flemons.

He calls himself “The American Songster.” After spending eight years in the successful old-time string band The Carolina Chocolate Drops — including opening for Taj Mahal and Bob Dylan and winning a Best Traditional Folk Album Grammy in 2010, for Genuine Negro Jig — Dom Flemons ventured out as a leader in 2013. His music now reflects a different set of American musical genres, but Flemons, who’s based in the NC Piedmont, still brings out the quills (a rare type of Southern panpipe) and percussive “bones,” going old-school on occasion. The multi-instrumentalist’s new band features bassist Brian Farrow and drummer Dante Pope.

“They come down to North Carolina from DC on the Mega Bus, and then we take off on the road,” says Flemons. (At press time, the band was on tour in the UK, Belgium, and France.) Flemons’ latest record, an EP, was the Record Store Day release What Got Over, and his next project will spotlight black cowboy singers.

Have you enjoyed being a solo act?
It’s been great: just a continuation of what I’ve always done. I’ve been working a brand-new trio with bass and drums. The bassist also plays fiddle with me, so we do old-time stuff as well as R&B, country music, and jazz. My interests have always been really varied when it comes to traditional music.

It’s not just old-time music that’s traditional — there’s tradition in jazz and R&B, too.
When I first got into folk music, I got into early rock ’n’ roll at the same time. I found that the two genres have a lot of conversation back and forth, directly or indirectly, with quite a few performers. Someone like Jimmie Rodgers really helps inspire someone like Hank Williams [Sr.], and Hank Williams really inspires Elvis. I found all these different genres connected. So when I got the black string-band music in my fingers and mind, I found that a lot of the early country-blues links in with string-band music.

Tell me more about the connections.
For example, there’s a black musician named Arnold Shultz [a fiddler and guitarist] that traveled up and down the East Coast, and taught Bill Monroe how to play mandolin with string-band music. If you look deeper, you find he also taught The Everly Brothers’ dad, Ike Everly, how to play. He also taught Merle Travis how to play. He taught Chet Atkins, too.

I admire your appetite for music.
I’ve always been interested in singing stuff that is not the most well-known. Most people into blues would be happy just to listen to Muddy Waters or Robert Johnson and that’s it. I’m interested in those guys, but I’ve always been interested in kind of the second tier and the third tier, where they were.

How did you evolve into “The American Songster?”
At first I wanted to be a folk singer, and that was something I knew was not a big viable term, so talking about being a “songster” instead, I focused on the music from the United States, and the term came to me. It gives me room to be a critic of history as well as a player. I don’t have to be one genre — I can be a lot broader.

The Dom Flemons Trio plays the Mountain Song Festival on Saturday, September 10, 6:30-7:30pm. Hosted by the Steep Canyon Rangers at Brevard Music Center, the festival is a three-day, family-friendly roots-music event (Sept. 9-11) featuring some of the best-known players in folk, bluegrass, and old-time. Other performers include Jerry Douglas of Union Station, Shannon Whitworth, Tim O’Brien, Darrell Scott, The Kruger Brothers, and more. For ticket information, see mountainsongfestival.com.

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