Along with Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons founded Carolina Chocolate Drops in 2005. The North Carolina act breathed new life into old-time music. A multi-instrumentalist, Flemons left the group in 2013 to focus on a solo career; Giddens began one of her own shortly thereafter, but maintains it as a side project to her work with the Drops.
For both, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a major musical influence. This month, Flemons took part in a tribute to one of his heroes in New York City.
“I was glad to be amongst the rowdy crew that was bringing some really good church music to lower Manhattan that day,” he said. “Sister Rosetta is known as a gospel singer, and she sang mostly religious material, but she had long periods of time that she sang secular material. Her style is one of the conduits to which rock and roll guitar was established on the popular stage. Her style of playing and her type of singing — you can hear it in Fats Domino, you can hear it in Chuck Berry, you can hear it in the R&B singers that came after her and were contemporaries like Lou Jordan or even the Sun Records artists like Elvis and Jerry Lee and Ike Turner. You can really hear the flavor that Sister Rosetta Tharpe put on her records and how it influenced other people. But it’s not really acknowledged most of the time.”
He’ll likely include some of those covers in his Birmingham set. “Strange Things Happen Everyday” was the tune that he chose for the tribute show, a song that served as Tharpe’s R&B crossover.
He feels a burden of responsibility to his craft now. He realizes that he is among a small group maintaining old-time music.
“I decided to start a couple of different little initiatives to create awareness about the music,” he said. “I had been doing it previously, but before then I wasn’t talking about the basics. I was talking more to people that had been in the community and had been doing it for a while; connecting the dots that way. But it’s changed. A lot of the older people in the community are retiring or dying, which leaves a big void that needs to be filled for people that are telling stories and getting information out there. I’ve taken it upon myself to be one of those people because I’ve been able to get a good foothold in my industry through my work with Carolina Chocolate Drops. But I’m also a big advocate for getting reissues out, putting out articles, sharing other people’s articles about the different types of old-time music and how it all connects together.”
He plays four-string banjo, guitar, bones and the jug. Guitar still presents his greatest musical challenge.
“That’s the most challenging,” he said. “The banjo came natural to me once I began playing it, but the guitar was always difficult to master; learning how to play it in a way that would set me apart from other people. I started out strumming and singing songs that I wrote like any other songwriter. Then I learned to fingerpick. Then I learned different styles of fingerpicking. I then learned different tuning. So that’s a lot of things to have to try to learn as a guitar player. Banjo was easier for me to learn because I had started out playing drums and there were certain parts of the banjo’s pluckiness and rhythm that appealed to me as a drummer.”
“The American Songster’s” most recent release is Prospect Hill, but he also shared an EP for Record Store Day, What Got Over, a record now available as a free download at domflemons.com/whatgotover. He says that he’s always been more interested in the literature of music rather that the mathematics and the technicalities of music.
“There are amazing stories behind this music,” he said. “And I find it far more relevant to 21st-century audiences than even to late 20th-century audiences that were first interested in it. I’ve tried to be a conduit for that. I’ve tried to push the envelope, but I’ve also tried to recognize the envelope again. People have gotten into the notion of ‘pushing the envelope’ so much that we don’t even know what we’re pushing against at the moment. In some ways, I feel that music has had a lot of conflicts because of that. We don’t know what people want anymore. Old-time music has stood the test of time. The things I play can be 60 to 100 years old sometimes. Some are newer songs that I’ve written in those styles that showcase that stuff — it’s new while it has that old flavor to it. I’d like to have the balance of both. I don’t like playing my mind all night long; I’d like to play somebody else’s mind for a little bit. With a lot of new people getting into it, I’m trying to stay in an unbroken chain of musicianship that goes back many years.”
His current live duo has also begun mixing in tunes from his old band’s namesake: the Tennessee Chocolate Drops. They’ll add blues, ragtime, Piedmont blues, old-time country music, early rock and roll, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and old-time jazz; a potpourri of sounds from across the American musical landscape.
Dom Flemons comes to Saturn on Saturday, May 28. Doors are at 8 p.m., while the show begins at 9 p.m. The Bear from Muscle Shoals, Alabama will open. Tickets are $14. For more information, visit saturnbirmingham.com.