“I left Arizona because I knew the music would take me somewhere – but I had no idea!”
You don’t have to be born in the Piedmont region of North Carolina to feel the music in your blood. For Flemons, it all began with a PBS documentary about the history of rock and roll. “There was an episode on the folk music revival that got me wanting to do it,” Flemons explains. “At the time, Dylan albums were inexpensive so I started buying them. From there, I read about the folk scene in New York City and I tried to do that in Phoenix. I began busking and playing in coffee houses.”
The Arizona native calls this a natural progression backwards. Before moving into music, Flemons wrote short stories and appeared at poetry slams, including two national events, and he helped to establish NorAz Poets, a non-profit that organizes slams within the state. Building upon his fascination with the sixties and his interest in playing guitar, he started to collect recordings of the early masters and used them as teachers. He then added banjo to the mix, going for the sound of the old-time players: “A friend let me borrow a 5-string banjo with a missing string. He didn’t like the 4th string. So I learned how to frail and I did an approximation of claw-hammer without the fifth string. I didn’t even know it was essential to have a fifth string!”
Flemons clearly shares a flare for the intrepid with his band-mates. While still a student, he headed off for Encanto Park in Phoenix and jumped into Wednesday night music jams. If, at times, he was the only young player and the only black man with a banjo, Flemons didn’t care. At the park, he met fellow banjo player and accomplished percussionist Sule Gregory Wilson, who told him about plans for a Black Banjo Gathering in North Carolina. “At first it was just supposed to be a one-day fish fry,” Flemons recalls, “so I didn’t see how I could afford to go. Then I saw the list growing and I figured I had to get there!”
The Black Banjo Gathering in April 2005 turned out to be the motivator that shifted Flemons’ life from Arizona busker to Piedmont string-band musician. He was introduced to players he’d only heard on recordings, such as Algie Mae Hinton (blues and buck-dancer), Clif Ervin (bones), Daniel Jatti (African gourd banjo or ekontane), and idols like Mike Seeger, co-founder of the influential New Lost City Ramblers, who’d spent a lifetime both preserving and innovating. He learned about blackbanjo.com and met Piedmont string-band legend Joe Thompson, who was intrigued, to put it kindly, by Flemons’ peculiar banjo picking style.
Compelled to move to the Piedmont, Flemons began to collaborate with Rhiannon Giddens, who formed the old time/African roots band Sankofa Strings with him and Gregory Wilson, and he followed her to Joe Thompson’s house where Justin Robinson was playing. Without even planning, Dom’s music revival dream became real: “It gave me a different perspective, going from being someone who was learning from recordings to sitting next to the artists and hearing them talk and seeing how mannerisms are translated into the music.”
On stage, Flemons rolls from one instrument to another with a fearless attitude toward tradition and repertoire. As he now reflects, “The unique experience I had getting into the old-time music really informed the way I have been able to process a lot of it. A lot of people ask me, how do you do this old-time music and have it stay contemporary to you as a person? What people forget is that on stage I might be playing music that’s 100 years-old, but that doesn’t mean my ears are only listening to music that’s 100 years-old. I got into this via old rock and roll, sixties rock and folk and went back from there. A couple of things got me into thinking about how to smash all of it together, particularly Mike Seeger’s way of taking different kinds of traditional music and putting them together to make new music. And being into the songsters like Lead Belly and Henry Thomas, I heard them and knew they weren’t doing straight blues like Robert Johnson and Skip James. I always wondered how it all fit, so when I met Joe and found out about the black string-band stuff, that was where the connections started happening – these songsters fit into this broader string band and folk music tradition and then you have things like blues and jazz, and even gospel music, wrapped up in it.”
Carolina Chocolate Drops’ 2010 Nonesuch Records debut, Genuine Negro Jig, garnered a Best Traditional Folk Album Grammy Award and the trio’s shows were praised wherever they performed, including such events as the Newport Folk Festival, Celtic Connections in Glasgow, and a groundbreaking appearance at the Grand Ole Opry. As the Times of London remarked, “In the end, a standing ovation was the only possible response. Anything, you sense, is possible now.” Despite a sudden lineup change in early 2011, after Robinson decided to embark full-time on a solo career, that comment still holds true: anything is indeed possible. In fact, with new member Hubby Jenkins, touring musician Leyla McCalla, and the participation of beat-boxer Adam Matta on CCD’s second full-length Nonesuch disc, Leaving Eden, Flemons says, “There’s a new diversity that comes from the new ensemble. My thought process of how I put together songs with the group is more like a jazz group. I can make it work in any sort of way. It was different than we had worked before. We had worked as the same ensemble for five years. Having a new group was a different experience, with different things we could do in running the band and handling the arrangements. Everything is different and news. And it’s very exciting for everybody involved.”