Vocalist, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Dom Flemons has excelled for years at celebrating the versatility and heritage of American popular music and Black culture. But he has broken fresh ground on his exceptional new album Traveling Wildfire, released at the end of March.
“With this album I wanted to look forward for a change, do more contemporary material,” he said during a recent phone interview. “Most of these songs are recent, and I wanted to delve into the different areas of Black country music. I wanted to have some romantic material, some soulful numbers, the gospel influence, songs about the history, the entire spectrum. A lot of people have been saying they wanted to hear some real Black country music, so that was my goal along with doing newer material.”
Traveling Wildfire includes the enticing tunes “Slow Dance With You” and “If You Truly Love Me,” coupled with harder edged topical fare like “Big Money Blues” and “Tough Luck.” The engaging, storytelling side, as well as his flair with lyric exposition and expressive delivery, are also evident.
Flemons’ second album for Smithsonian Folkways, produced by Ted Hunt (Old Crow Medicine Show), continues the evolution of a solo career that for impact and importance is now rivaling the near decade he spent as part of the remarkable Black string band and old-time country ensemble, The Carolina Chocolate Drops. Its members were taught the foundations of old-time tunes by North Carolina fiddler Joe Thompson, and their Grammy-winning 2010 release Genuine Negro Jig stands as a classic of contemporary folk and country. They were together from 2005-2014, and while he looks back with fondness on that period, Flemons makes it clear he’s looking to the future rather than the past.
“Everyone has moved on and there’s been no talk about any type of reunion or revival,” he continued. “I think everyone has their own projects or interests now.”
Flemons certainly does. Traveling Wildfire is his seventh studio album, and his LPs reflect his knowledge of and comfort with country, folk and blues. Among his other outstanding solo albums, arguably the finest is Black Cowboys from 2018. It features seldom told tales and sagas of African American cowboys and Blacks who came West after the Civil War. Flemons, an Arizona native, got hooked on this material after reading a book on Black cowboys. The project was his debut for Smithsonian Folkways, and is a monumental tribute to a sorely overlooked part of not only Western, but American history.
Flemons also finds time to annotate albums for the vintage label Craft Recordings and contributes his prose as well as his music to the new compilation Birthright: A Black Roots Music Compendium. In addition, he’s earning raves as a broadcaster. Flemons hosts the monthly radio show American Songster, which airs on terrestrial radio via WSM every third Tuesday at 6 p.m. central, and is also available via podcasts.
“The radio show gives me a chance to sit down with other musicians, many of whom I have never met or crossed paths with, and have the type of discussions that you ordinarily wouldn’t have the opportunity to get. One recent example was Branford Marsalis. We had the chance to really get into some areas of performance and history that I felt were not only compelling, but things that you might not expect to hear from him. That is the type of thing I strive to get with the program.”
Flemons received an honorary doctorate from his alma mater Northern Arizona University last year, and he remains committed to championing the breadth and vast scope of American music and the African American experience. He takes a philosophical tone when asked a final question regarding his feelings about his relatively low profile on Black radio and within the African American community as a whole.
“Black music has always historically looked forward rather than backward, and the audience for contemporary Black radio is a reflection of that,” he concluded. “But my experience, both with the Chocolate Drops and as a solo performer, is that when Black audiences have a chance to hear my music and hear the context, they enjoy it. The Black experience has always been broader and more inclusive than many think, and showing that will always be a major part of my mission as a musician and artist.”
Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez