FolkWorld #81 11/2023
© Smithsonian Folkways / Sacks & Co.

Across the Western Ocean

Go behind the scenes with Dom Flemons as he discusses the transformative path that led to his upcoming release, 'Traveling Wildfire.' Here he highlights some of the original songs and instrumentation on the album, from rhythm bones to the gourd banjo and stone mason jug. Flemons is joined in the studio by GRAMMY-winning musician and producer Ted Hutt (Flogging Molly, Lucero, Old Crow Medicine Show).

Traveling Wildfire

Dom Flemons

Artist Video Dom Flemons @ FROG

As a resolute preservationist, storyteller, and instrumentalist, Dom Flemons has long set himself apart by finding forgotten folk songs and making them live again. His work has been recognized with a GRAMMY, two Emmy nominations, a USA Fellowship Award, and inclusion in an exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. For Traveling Wildfire, his first new album since 2018’s Black Cowboys and second for Smithsonian Folkways, he turns to an important, overlooked voice that he's proudly rediscovered: his own.

Kentucky Colonels

On New Album, Dom Flemons Delves Into Different Areas of Black Country Music
Flatt & Scruggs
Willie Nelson

Folk Music from Another World: Iris DeMent, Greg Brown, Rufus Wainwright & Dom Flemons
John Prine
Neil Young

Video presented by Americana Music
Sam Bush

“Knowing that I was going to be showcasing original material for a good deal of the record, I wanted to give people a different view of my songwriting,” he says. “I figured that I’ve done enough records where people know that I can do old-time material. I didn’t let myself be limited by that. There are some spots on this album that will be a surprise for people. I think it will take them into a very different headspace in terms of what they’d expect from me. But that’s also something I wanted to do. As an artist, you have to think, ‘What aren’t they going to expect?’”

Recorded in Los Angeles with producer Ted Hutt (Old Crow Medicine Show, Dropkick Murphys), Traveling Wildfire represents The American Songster’s journey for the past two decades and takes a deeper look at how those years changed his life. The album begins quietly, like an intimate conversation in the middle of the night, and as it unfolds, it calls to mind the initial sparks that happen at the beginning of a new relationship. The indelible hallmarks of traditional country music are woven throughout the first half of the project, while the second half eases into an acoustic, up-beat style that showcases his talents as an arranger, musician, and interpreter of folk songs.

“When I was coming up with these particular numbers for Traveling Wildfire, I wanted to have a flavor of very traditional Country & Western music that could also reflect the Black experience from my perspective,” Flemons says. “One of the things that I’ve noticed since Black Cowboys is that people are wanting to hear more Black country music that reflects both their culture, environment, and values while still sounding like it’s rooted in tradition.”

Raised in Phoenix, Arizona, Flemons comes from a family of civil rights leaders, Tuskegee Airmen, and preachers who were prominent figures in the Black community of Arizona. His father, a former basketball player and member of the Black fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi, introduced him to classic country music. As a kid listening to local radio, Flemons then learned more about country legends like Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell. In college, he took an online class on country music history and first heard the music of DeFord Bailey and Charley Pride. That discovery ignited a passion for finding other African American performers with country songs in their repertoire.

Dom Flemons

Artist Audio Dom Flemons "Traveling Wildfire", Smithsonian Folkways, 2023

After graduating from Northern Arizona University (which presented him with an honorary doctorate in 2022), Flemons moved to North Carolina and co-founded the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a string band of young Black musicians who won a GRAMMY for their 2010 album, Genuine Negro Jig.

Along with earning a GRAMMY nomination for Black Cowboys in the category of Best Folk Album, Flemons was included in the American Currents exhibit in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. He also received two Emmy nominations through an appearance on Songcraft Presents (PBS). He was chosen to be a Spotlight Artist at the five-day Soundtrack of America event curated by Quincy Jones and director Steve McQueen in 2019. The following year, Flemons was selected for the United States Artists Fellowship Award for the Traditional Arts category, which was generously supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Also in 2020, he reissued Prospect Hill: The American Songster Omnibus, which explores 100 years of American roots music.

Envisioned as a double album, Traveling Wildfire feels like a joyful awakening from a familiar, dreamlike state. To open the album, Flemons chose one of his older songs, “Slow Dance With You,” an elegant country waltz enhanced by Matt Pynn on pedal steel and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos on drums. The album then glides into “Dark Beauty,” a sensuous ode to his wife, Vania, before shifting into the honky-tonk heartbreak song, “If You Truly Love Me.”

With over a million miles’ worth of traveling in his background for the past 20 years, the project places Flemons’ own experiences at the forefront, notably on the atmospheric “Traveling Wildfire” and “It’s Cold Inside.” The relentless search for a stable life amidst uncertainty became the impetus to write these two songs, which foretell the harsh reality of hitting rock bottom and having to start over while picking up the pieces.

The glimmer of dawn arrives with “We Are Almost Down to the Shore,” a poignant spiritual he learned from a prison recording by Jimmie Strother from the Library of Congress’ Lomax Family Collection. Here, Flemons reimagines it on guitar as a duo vocal with singer Lashon Halley (co-lead singer of Dustbowl Revival). He also puts his own interpretation on “Nobody Wrote It Down,” a cinematic Black genealogy co-written a few years ago for a side project named MOJA. The explosive, futuristic Western soundtrack frames the fictitious saga of a runaway slave-turned-Pony Express rider whose descendants would become a Buffalo Soldier, a cowboy, and a Pullman porter. While stories like these have been passed down from generation to generation, the song is meant to acknowledge the important role of family legacy as a tool of survival.

Basic Folk
Artist Audio Dom Flemons' latest record is filled with his most personal songs about his family, history and, of course, interpretations of very old songs. He talks about all this (and his strong style game) on Basic Folk.

Next, an intriguing rendition of Rev. Gary Davis’ “Saddle It Around,” performed in the vein of Mississippi John Hurt, showcases Flemons’ beloved Fraulini Angelina guitar as well as trusty Big Head Joe the Giant, a 100-year-old six-string banjo. Among the 15 instruments he plays on this album, his arsenal includes a Hofner electric guitar, a Fender Telecaster, a five-string Sankofa gourd banjo, and a four-string Deering Sierra Plectrum banjo. The beat of a marching bass drum, also played by Flemons, provides a metronomic effect throughout the project.

Following four more original compositions, he turns to the work of Eric Andersen (“Song to JCB”) and Bob Dylan (“Guess I’m Doing Fine”). Those songwriters issued music on Folkways early in their careers, making their inclusion on this project especially fitting. In addition, Sam Bush adds his distinctive fiddle on the latter track, while the Pogues’ James Fearnley plays piano accordion on the album’s closing instrumental, “Songster Revival.”

Asked what he hopes his audience will hear in Traveling Wildfire, Flemons replies, “I hope people will be able to hear the different phases of my life through the lyrics and feel the energy that fuels my creativity within the songs. The past few years for me have been a time of deep reflection and meditation. I hope that the album will light a fire of inspiration inside everyone who experiences it.”

“The official Traveling Wildfire music video came together when I began working on The Real Wild West 4-part documentary series, which will debut as a Curiositystream Original this year. For the shoot, my wife, Vania Kinard, suggested that I perform Traveling Wildfire and she also helped coordinate the filming location at the Superstition Mountains in Arizona. We timed the shoot so that we could capture the Arizona sunset and then directors Sarah Burns and Alex Sherratt, along with the entire camera crew, produced some incredible footage of iconic Arizona landscapes. My original song ‘Traveling Wildfire’ was written in a hotel room in Nashville, TN back in 2021 during Hurricane Ida. Now, Traveling Wildfire can be heard as the opening theme song for the new original documentary series, The Real Wild West. Special thanks to Roller Coaster Road Productions for creating this brilliant music video that brings Traveling Wildfire to the spotlight.” — Dom Flemons

It’s Cold Inside was written in 2014, after my professional and personal life unexpectedly unraveled in front of my eyes. In 2010, an injury I suffered on stage brought many years of both physical and mental exhaustion, including extreme body trauma that continues to follow me after years of hard, worldwide traveling. I wrote the song in a dark period of my life and set it aside until I decided to revisit it for this album. I found that the lyrics held new relevance for me. It became clear that many people around the world have been physically and emotionally strained by the pandemic and the surrounding political, social, and cultural changes that have followed in its wake. With It’s Cold Inside, I extend my hand to them in good faith.” — Dom Flemons

Slow Dance With You: “Traveling Wildfire is not only a statement of my personal travel experiences but also a metaphor for rebirth in the wake of destruction. It reminded me that the album is in its own way a statement about emerging from the depths of uncertainty to find a new relevance during this unprecedented moment in modern history. At the same time, the image of the traveling wildfire reminded me of how music and stories can travel from generation to generation bringing important lessons from the past into the present and the future.” — Dom Flemons

Dom Flemons’ new version of Bob Dylan’s Guess I’m Doing Fine, featuring special guest Sam Bush. “The song’s powerful lyrics about resilience in the face of insurmountable odds have resonated with me since I first heard it on CD 20 years ago. After cutting Guess I’m Doing Fine, I realized that it would be cool to add a fiddle part to pull out the strains of bluegrass that I found in the song’s structure. I am so fortunate and grateful that my friend Sam Bush was available to add his fiddle to this lively track and bring some of that old-timey flavor to it.” — Dom Flemons

Multi-instrumentalist and scholar Dom Flemons demonstrates his showstopping instrumental Rabbit Foot Rag, as heard on his recent album Traveling Wildfire. The notation and performance notes can be found in the September/October 2023 issue of the Acoustic Guitar Magazine.

The true-life events that inspired larger-than-life legends will be reenacted and illuminated in The Real Wild West, an ambitious four-part documentary series on the Curiosity Stream platform. Grammy Award-winning musician and bard Dom Flemons will take viewers for a ride into America’s past to meet the Black and Hispanic cowboys, female homesteaders, immigrants, and tribal leaders who faced unprecedented opportunity, ambition, fortune, and technological marvels to forge new paths across the wilderness. Read More on Cowboys & Indians!

Photo Credits: (1)-(2) Dom Flemons, (3) Kentucky Colonels, (4) Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, (5) Willie Nelson, (6) John Prine, (7) Neil Young, (8) Sam Bush (unknown/website).

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