Dom Flemons Talks Influences (Even Ben Folds), His Beginnings, and the Importance of Roots Music

I first saw Dom Flemons perform at a sit-down listening room outside of DC - captivated, of course, by the authenticity of his sound and the absolute raw and boisterous entertainment coming from just one single man on a stage. He could've been joined by an entire marching band and it wouldn't have risen the energy, excitement, and utter awe of the performance one iota. I thought I was a fan before, but man, after the show, I was born anew. To top it all off, his humility and kindness while greeting fans sets him apart on an entirely different level. He even gave me a banjo lesson on my shoulder...

Needless to say, I was very excited when it turned out he was headlining our inaugural Norfolk Folk Festival (joined by multi-instrumentalist and musical partner Brian Farrow). You don't get many chances to ask such specific questions to an idol.  We hope you enjoy the answers as much as we enjoyed the questions! Without further adieu, Mr. Flemons: 

Paul Bidanset: Many teenage musicians first cut their teeth in high school garage bands,  banging drums and strumming power chords. How did you ultimately come to perform roots music and what initially drew you to it? 

Dom Flemons: The way I came to roots music was a long strange journey.  I started out like anyone a fan of a certain type of music that moved my spirit.  I saw a documentary on TV called “The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll” and it really opened my mind up to a lot of different types of music.  I saw film of all of these wonderful performers of the past from Louis Jordan and Muddy Waters to Carl Perkins and Jimi Hendrix.  I became a huge Chuck Berry fan.  I became a fan of the Beatles and Tom Petty.  I was also drawn to Bob Dylan’s music and the folk music scene in the early 1960’s.  As I went through high school and all the way through college, I collected records and played in the local coffeehouses in my home state of Arizona. 

I’ve always kept a broad collection of music with me.  Genre lines are important for buying records.  I would hate to have a store that had one bin that just said “Music” on it and leave you to scramble for the record you are looking for.  Yet, after the purchases were made, I found a lot of enjoyment in listening to all of these different schools of thought.  Different voices.  I’ve always love to hear a unique voice in a singer.  As I got into the older styles of music I was attracted to the unique voices of people like Charlie Patton and Howlin’ Wolf.  I also enjoyed Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams.  

As I got into college I got into Alan Lomax’s field recordings.  Not just the ones from the United States but the ones from the UK and Italy.  They had those in my college library.  I got into beat poetry and became a slam poet for several years performing at two national poetry slams.  After doing poetry for a while, I had an inkling to get back into music and that transition landed me into the world of 1920’s and 1930’s blues, hillbilly, jazz and jug band music.  Shortly after I become engrossed in this amazing music I went to a conference on the black and African roots of the banjo, The Black Banjo Gathering of 2005, and I had found my purpose.  I saw that the early songsters I had studied up to that point from Leadbelly to Henry Thomas and Papa Charlie Jackson had been underrepresented in most scholarship up to that point and I wanted to connect the dots I made with the Black Banjo community that placed them in a different context.  I saw that black folk music and white folk music of the 19th century were interrelated and the people who were influenced by these early artists reached back to the folk singers that I first listened to when I was back in high school.

That’s the short version, haha.  As for why I was draw in comes from the fact that roots music presents people’s real voices.  It can be superficial or non-sequitur but at other times it can cut straight to the heart.

PB: While you write and record original songs, the majority of your repertoire consists of your interpretation of traditional numbers and/or songs from the early twentieth century. How would you describe your "mission" as a folk singer? Why is it important that these songs are heard by folks today? 

DF: I pick songs that I think people will enjoy.  That’s first and foremost.  I also pick songs I enjoy as well.  That gives me a space to present my own passion for the music in addition to my own original composition which are based on old styles.  But don’t let it deceive you, I write songs that are not standard compositions.  Try playing one and you will see.  To listen to it may not sound different but it is.  I have to tried to use the influences of the past to understand their styles.  Take WC Handy for example.  He used the folk blues song fragments he heard growing up in Alabama and made compositions that became one of the major ways that blues music became a legitimate music form of the United States.  I’m still early in my career so I don’t know if I will ever achieve the status of someone like Handy but one can always dream.

PB: You started off early in your career with lots of busking and street performances. With your success, you've moved on to large, iconic stages all around the world. Has this street performance origin impacted the way you approach your performance on stage today?

DF: Busking helps a performer understand how to please an audience.  While most times we are taught that it isn’t about that, musical performance is about that no what.  Even if you ignore the audience, you are on stage and that in itself is a statement of performance art. 

But unlike the big rock star stages of the world, busking is on the street corner where you must convince someone to drop some money in your bucket or hat.  People don’t have to do anything for you and when you busk you know this.  Any street performer knows days when the money was great and when it was not.  There are a lot of variables.  When are people out on the street, when do they have money, what songs do they want to hear?  These are things you get to know very fast when you busk.  After getting a couple of days on the street, the pretention of music goes out the door.  You even have to adjust your voice to fit the open street.  Which buildings resonate right and how far do they carry your sound.  How loud to you need to sing.

Finally, how well can you sell your song.  Most times a street performer plays songs people know because people can connect with that.  Original material is hard because you have to sell it for the first time and that can be hard.  I used to do impressions and that caught people’s ears.  They would say, “Wow you sound just like” and drop a dollar into my hat. 

PB: Your friend and musical partner Brian Farrow will be performing with you at the festival. How did you two come to know one another? How has he impacted your approach as a musician and entertainer? 

DF: Brian Farrow!  I met him at a festival I was playing a few years back.  He knew my work and spotted me and asked to jam.  At that moment I was looking for a second person to join me on stage.  Brian was into and he left working with the Hackensaw Boys to work with me.  Though I had hired him to play bass with me, Brian has taken a passion for the fiddle which I have encouraged and feature in the show.  It has been a pleasure to work with such a talented young man.  We have a lot of fun on stage and as Brian has busked on the street a lot himself, he is not afraid to joke around with me while giving the folks the show.

PB: Who would you say your largest two musical influences have been, either living or deceased?

DF: I would say for deceased, Leadbelly.  His voice and 12 string guitar have been an inspiration for since the beginning when Bob Dylan references him on “Song For Woody” his tribute to Woody Guthrie. 

Until recently I would have mentioned my late friend James “Boo” Hanks who was from Buffalo Junction, VA.  He just passed away early this year in 2016.  I learned a lot about fingerpicking from Boo and scatting too if you can believe that.

I could go on and on about these two men but I would recommend folk look up other articles where I talk about them in depth.

PB: You hail from Arizona. What was it about the culture and identity of North Carolina that made you set up your new home there?

DF: I was drawn to the musical traditions of North Carolina from the beginning.  Doc Watson, Bascom Lamar Lundsford, Elizabeth Cotton, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk.  Ben Folds haha!  It has always been a hotbed for music of all kinds not just old-time music.  When opportunity came for me to move out to NC and play music with Joe Thompson I jumped on it.  I also started work on creating the Carolina Chocolate Drops at that time which was a group focused on presenting Joe’s music.  I had admired so many artists from North Carolina it was a no-brainer for me to break new ground in the scholarship of black string bands.  I then found I loved the State as well.  I lived in New York City for several years in Manhattan and Brooklyn but I found NC a great place to come back to cool down from all of the excitement of traveling.  

PB: Are there any VA artists in your record collection?

DF: Tons!  John Jackson!  E.C. Ball!  Gene Vincent!  Archie Edwards!

Virginia is another hotbed of music of all types.  I will mention the Blue Ridge Institute’s “Non-Blues Secular Black Music” record as an early resource for me.  Floyd, VA is an old-time music mecca.  The Carter Family! 

There are a lot of directions to look for the music of Virginia.  Hobart Smith is another one that comes to mind.  Even in the old time music world Joel Walker Sweeney, one of the first blackface minstrel to incorporate the African banjo into his show came from Appomattox, VA which in itself has a heavy history that the music reflects.

PB: Will this be your first time coming to the eastern VA/Hampton Roads area?

DF: I will say that this will be the first time I will be spending some time in the area.  I have come through several times in my travel but like most places I am just passing through going to the next show.  I plan to do a couple of days in the area hitting one of the beaches to chose from and enjoy a bit of the summer time before the touring season picks up again. 

PB: You recently starred in Old Crow Medicine Show's music video for Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer. Was that half as much fun as it looked? How did you end up with that gig?

DF: Funny thing, I have been a fan of Old Crow for years since I was playing back in Arizona.  Since then I‘ve gotten to know the guys and I have opened up for Old Crow about dozen times or so.  I was about to let everyone in my crew go for Thanksgiving 2014 when I get a call from Ketch asking if I wanted to be in their music video.  Knowing that it was going to be a great time I called my crew back to work and we got down to Nashville on two wheels and made that video.  It was a wonderful time! 

PB: For the gear nerds in attendance, what sort of instruments can we expect to see you playing at the festival? (make? model? year?)

DF: Well two of the guitars I keep with me on stage are my ladder braced guitar from Fraulini Guitars.  It is a medium sized parlor body with a regular parlor neck.  I’ve also started bringing out my old Original Hound Dog Resonator that played all the time years ago.  It is still my favorite guitar to play.  I’ll of course bring my good friend Big Head Joe, the giant 6-string guitar-banjo with its 18’ banjo head.  I’ll have harmonicas, bones, quills and few other tricks up my sleeve.

PB: Are there any particular new roots artists on the scene today that you are particularly excited about?

DF: The Americana and acoustic field has expanded so much that its hard to keep up with everything happening in the scene.  Main person I’ve seen that impressed me was the young country blues singer Jontavius Willis.  He has a great sound.  Great player and singer and he is so young I can’t wait to see what he will be up to in a few years.  I dig Willie Watson, Pokey LaFarge.  I saw a fellow named Vadou Game recently that knocked me out.  He’s not acoustic but he has a rooted sound as a musician from Togo in African.

PB: If you had to recommend three "must listen to" artists for a new roots music fan, what would they be?

DF: I would recommend these releases:

Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas

Hank Williams

Chuck Berry

Also the CD set:

Before The Blues v.1-3

Catch Dom headlining the (free)  inaugural Norfolk Folk Festival, Saturday July 2nd, in the parking lot of O'Connor Brewing Company (211 W 24th St, Norfolk, VA 23517)!