Leading up to LEAF festival, Mountain Xpress is talking to a number of artists from across the country and across musical genres. Folk musician Dom Flemons describes himself as an American songster. A founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, he’s since gone on to pursue a solo career and recently released his album Prospect Hill.
Xpress: Is the role of educator something you’re happy to take on, or does it ever feel forced upon you because you perform songs and styles with historical background? How do you bridge education and entertainment?
Dom Flemons: The main way I justify education and entertainment is to embrace both with honesty. I make sure I craft my performances so that they reflect me as an individual as well as the historical details that I feel work with my material.
As a person who is informed in the music, I try my best to be true to the styles I present on stage. At the same time, I cannot be anyone but myself when it all comes down to it. I learned that from Mike Seeger.
I am okay with being called an educator. As a songster and a folksinger, that is a great honor. I’m glad that people are finding lessons in the songs I’ve picked out.
You talk in your recent interview with Terry Gross about how Prospect Hill was “an exercise in cutting back on a lot of the things I’d been doing.” Is that idea of stripping back and editing in anyway born of going solo after being with the Carolina Chocolate Drops? And do you find, in writing and playing folk music, that your inclination is to strip more away, or to try to flesh it out with added instrumentation/sounds/textures?
My main purpose in stripping things back is to be aware that because more instruments are available, they do not need to be used. This notion grew out of getting into performing by listening to other solo performers. Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Mississippi John Hurt. All those guys played their music solo. They made it happen just by themselves playing their styles of music.
I loved hearing that, and I learned how to play music on stage on my own. I had never thought about playing in a band. I played music gigs and then did slam poetry. All solo performance. It wasn’t until I started Sankofa Strings and the Carolina Chocolate Drops that I started playing shows with groups exclusively.
I have nothing against bigger production. I just don’t need it for the music I choose to present. When you add too much orchestration to old-time music, it loses its charm. The same thing if you add an artificial beat to it. It is fully organic music and must stay that way to be that. If you slick it up too much, it’s just like any other pop music.
When I recorded Prospect Hill, I wanted the music to be transparent. People have forgotten that music is better with space, dynamics, subtlety and jagged edges. I am not really a conservative musician by nature, but on this record I felt that I needed to keep it all transparent and easy to listen to.
At the same time, I experimented on the album on everything. I wrote most of the songs and I arranged every song to be a clear statement of the styles. I brought in a variety of musicians. Guy Davis did some wonderful work on the record, which I think is unique to both of our recorded repertoires. He recorded with both acoustic and amplified
That’s what’s great about recording music and leaving spaces rather, than filling it up. Too Long I’ve Been Gone could have had a bass on it, or drums, but I liked the space created by the two guitars. It’s all about preference and the statement you’re trying to make.
Since The Carolina Chocolate Drops got their start in Western North Carolina (in Boone), does the area hold special meaning or inspiration for you?
Of course. I will always hold Boone in my heart for those early years when I first came to N.C. Also Doc Watson, Merlefest, Sugar Grove. These are places I’ve played for years and enjoyed and some of the best feathers in my cap come from this area. [One] memory of LEAF is watching a shout band playing out in the field with the Lake in the background. I remember thinking, “Wow this is magic.”
You grew up in Arizona — how do you think that particular place informed you as a musician? Does a sense of place play a part in your sound or songwriting?
Starting up in Arizona taught me to play my music hard. There wasn’t a lot of acoustic music around, and folks weren’t that interested in hearing what I was playing, so I had to learn how [engage] them with my presence as well as music. I did all sorts if things to pull that off.
I think a sense of place informs my music. A long time ago I heard a proverb called Sankofa which means “go back and fetch it.” It’s an Ashanti proverb from the Gold Coast of Africa. It’s a concept that describes taking the past into the present and moving toward the future with it. My music is driven by this concept.
On your bio you talk about “focusing on the old-time blues music of the pre-WWII era.” When you delve into research and historical music in that way, do you find you have to strip modernity from your life in other ways? For example, are you drawn to art or clothing or furnishings from previous eras or do you need to be surrounded by such things to create a mood?
I live my life the way I do. That’s it. I don’t need to put on any sort of act to get out there. I try to be myself on stage every time. I don’t watch TV. I tend to read a lot of books and listen to a lot of records for my pastime, but I’m glad to live in the modern world. I have no desire to live in the past or be a representation of anything other than what I am right now. I tend to lean toward older styles because I actually find the music to be unique, unlike a lot of music you’ll find out in the world of popular music.
I am fan of creating awareness. Historical awareness, musical awareness, cultural awareness. All of those things. Most importantly, I want my audience to have a good time and to think as they walk away.