Dom Flemons
Photo: Shervin Lainez / Sacks & Co.

Dom Flemons’ Slow Dance with the History and Future of Song

The great “songster” Dom Flemons has pandemic stories to tell, but also shares his new album’s inspirations, including a love of Bob Dylan and Black cowboy narratives.

Traveling Wildfire
Dom Flemons
Smithsonian Folkways
24 March 2023

Dom Flemons has always been more than a singer-songwriter or songster, to use his terminology. He’s also a keen student of history and the history of song. Nowhere is that more evident than on his latest release, Traveling Wildfire. Whereas past solo releases from Flemons (a founding member of Carolina Chocolate Drops) have found him focusing on a concept and mining the fertile songbook associated with said idea, Traveling Wildfire shines the light on his formidable talents as a writer.

That said, the music is still informed by history, the sound of the past meeting the ears of the future, of Flemons tapping into untold and under-told stories and teaching us, like all great teachers, about things we didn’t necessarily know we needed to know.

Despite the focus of Traveling Wildfire being material from his pen, there’s still time for a few covers, whether from Bob Dylan, Eric Andersen, or Reverend Gary Davis. Nevertheless, those blend seamlessly into the portrait painted across the LP as Flemons moves between country music and its Western counterpart.

It is a richly dense record: It reveals itself slowly, and patient listeners are rewarded with repeat visits as they unfold the mysteries and masterful portraits contained in its grooves (and in the deeply informative essay penned to accompany the LP). Traveling Wildfire isn’t the artist’s arrival (that happened long ago), but it is another entry in an incredible discography of necessary and deeply gratifying records that enrich the tradition from which he has emerged.

Flemons recently spoke with PopMatters from his Chicago-area home about Traveling Wildfire, his love of Bob Dylan, and the continued role of Black performers in country (and western) music.

From everything I’ve read, it sounds like this record was tied to the pandemic. You had been traveling and playing for so many years when the world shut down in early 2020. There had to be a kind of mental and emotional whiplash. 

That was one of the things that made recording Traveling Wildfire such a different experience from some of my other records. I really wanted to figure out what would be the most appealing record for people coming out of the pandemic. One of the things that happen when you’re traveling a lot is that you get a lot of feedback from the audience. In many ways, that can guide the way that you decided to do your creative ventures. This was the first time I didn’t have some sort of audience giving me some type of direction, at least for what type of material I should put out there. I woodshedded a lot of different types of songs to bring together: What would become Traveling Wildfire? I wrote some and let people into my experiences a little bit. A bit more personal than I’ve done on previous records.

Do you remember the first song you wrote for this record that gave you a sense of the direction, the bigger picture? 

The first song that I wrote that showed me a direction was “Traveling Wildfire”. It was written at a very telling moment of what I was going through at that time. I was driving from a gig in Arkansas over to Nashville to play at Bonnaroo, and I got caught in Hurricane Ida. I was seeing flooding in front of me as well as people suffering in New Orleans. But then, at the same time, when I finally made my way to the hotel, the gig had been canceled because it got washed out; I was stranded with my family for several days, so I started to look at the news and started to see the footage and the coverage of the wildfires in Southern California. That really set the pace for “Traveling Wildfire”. The uncertainty of “What’s going to happen next?” was one of the things that I found to be a very strong theme that I wanted to continue to follow.

There’s that, but the oldest song in terms of date was “Slow Dance With You”. When we started to record the album, I started to get playbacks of all the tracks, and I found “Slow Dance With You” continued to be a very appealing track. Every single time. It had a wonderful sentiment around it based on love relationships between people. I thought that made a good first statement.

I got excited when I heard that for the first time. I loved the lyric and performance, and I felt like it was just a little bit different from some other things that you had done. 

I wrote it right around the time I started performing on the Grand Ole Opry, for the very first time, around 2008. I was drawn to this particular melody, and I wanted to showcase what traditional country music means to me. Now, over many years, there’s been a whole new conversation about country music, how traditional and not traditional it is, and then there have been conversations about performing country music across racial lines. As a person who has been in that space for a long time, it felt like a good time to really show people my country music chops.

That’s why I wanted to make the first part of the record more of a country record. I let the pedal steel do a lot of the talking as well. I thought that was a particular instrument that brought out that flavor of country music. I was glad to do that with “Slow Dance With You” and “If You Truly Love Me”.

There is also the Western side which I imagine reflects your Western roots. 

When Black Cowboys came out in 2018, I really had no idea that there would be a full-on renaissance and resurgence of Black cowboys as a subject matter. Black country music also became a much larger conversation than I had seen for quite a few years. When I started working on the record, I knew I wanted to get some Western material in place. “Nobody Wrote It Down” was a song that I had written already. I decided to do my own version of it with a big cinematic explosion on the record. I was really pleased by that. It was really wonderful because I was able to juxtapose it with this beautiful Reverend Gary Davis song, “Saddle It Around”. I thought that they made a really beautiful juxtaposition of a continuation of the Black Western theme but without getting bogged down too much.

With “Saddle It Around”, the picking pattern is a very specific type of country blues picking pattern that I thought was so unique to this song, and that’s one of the reasons that I started to learn and perform it. It continued to make this album this very beautiful journey across different areas of my musical journey. I was able to create a fabric out of those things. It was really something to be able to revisit Black Cowboys in a certain way but do it in a way that is sort of post-all of the films that have come out, whether it was The Concrete Cowboy or The Harder They Fall. It was nice to address a futuristic cowboy sound.

When did you know that the image or idea of the Black cowboy was beginning to gain currency? 

Once I started to see the Yeehaw Agenda and “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X, that’s when I started to see the Black cowboys idea take on a new form. At the time I released my last album, Denzel Washington’s remake of The Magnificent Seven was a current film. Django Unchained had come out, and I saw echoes of that and tried to produce echoes of that in Black Cowboys. After that, so many things happened. So many different parts of Black cowboys in Black westerns. The reclaiming of the living parts of Black Western culture [was remarkable].

I put the album out, I got the nomination for the Grammy in 2019, and by that time, it was something much bigger than I could have imagined. At the same time, it was the perfect mirror image to what I was doing with my album, Black Cowboys, because, with that, I wanted to make sure that I was telling the story of the folk cowboy, the working-class Black cowboy. I tried my best not to put any of the glitz and glam into it because I felt that that was an important way to tell the story.

So now, with Traveling Wildfire, I was able to go into this more creative burst of colors and visions and these types of manifestations of Black Western culture. Even a song like “Dark Beauty” in some ways is a sequel to the song “Black Woman”. It’s telling the story of a Black cowboy, in some ways, making his way down the road to meet his one true love. There’s a lot of overtones that I want to keep within the structure of Traveling Wildfire so that people didn’t think I just took off from cowboys. It wasn’t just a one-timer.

You mentioned “Nobody Wrote It Down”, and I love that tune because it taps into the folk and country tradition of preserving history. 

I wrote that with Carl Gustafson and Billy Branch. We all had our own stories that reflected the same sentiment that “Nobody Wrote It Down” has. All three of us found out that we had Western roots that were so deep that it was staggering. That was one of the reasons I structured it where you have a whole genealogy being told, and then at the end, you have the whole cascading genealogy. It’s a story that’s enduring, and it’s also one of the sad parts of the history, that there are stories that don’t get written down. Just to be able to visit Black cowboys again with a song that comes with such a direct message. I thought it was wonderful to be able to do that.

I thought it was an inspired choice to do “Guess I’m Doing Fine” by Bob Dylan. Am I correct that that was a suggestion on the part of his team? 

It was funny because I wanted to get a co-write with Bob Dylan. I reached out to [his team] to see if that would be a possibility. They said that, unfortunately, it wouldn’t be a possibility, but they sent down several suggestions of songs that they thought I would do a great job of cutting. “Guess I’m Doing Fine” is one that I’ve had a long history with. I used to have a bootleg called The Genuine Bootleg Series. In that series, they had two of the songs from The Witmark Demos. They had “Guess I’m Doing Fine” and another one called “Long Time Gone”. It was great to be able to finally play this number and come up with a brand-new arrangement, which really took on a life of its own once we got it in the studio and got everything going. Then, of course, Sam Bush put the wonderful fiddle on top of it. It took it over the top.

It was also a wonderful vehicle for one of my episodes of American Songster Radio I did recently, where it was all Black Dylan covers, all African American performers covering Bob Dylan. It became a great vehicle to see that I’m a part of a long legacy of Black artists who have covered Bob Dylan in various forms.

This is my Dylan rediscovery year. For me, he’s like the Beatles. I have long periods where I don’t listen and then periods where I want to listen to everything and find all the stuff I haven’t heard before. What’s your relationship with his music? 

It’s been about the same. I picked up on Bob Dylan when I was about 16, and that was really one of the impetuses for me to start playing guitar and harmonica. I always have liked his stuff, and his [records] were always cheaper than everything else when I was first getting into the music because they hadn’t digitally remastered anything yet. I was able to get his CDs for really cheap at the place that I used to go to, and I got into his whole output, which is what was funny about programming the radio program because I was able to jump into different parts of his career and then find people who covered material from those different parts. Like, Solomon Burke’s “What Good Am I?” On the album Oh Mercy, it’s sort of like a tone poem. But when Solomon Burke does it, he does this really raucous version. I got to read the lyrics again just to do my normal annotation, and I found that I had a new appreciation for the lyrics off of the page instead of thinking of them as a performance.

I always find myself coming back to Dylan. Up to the mid-1970s, there were only a few points where he could do any wrong. But he kept a real consistent quality of work. I fell in love with Good As I Been to You again recently. What a great record.