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Folk artist Dom Flemons on his new album, "Traveling Wildfire"

Album artwork for "Traveling Wildfire" by Dom Flemons (2023 / Smithsonian Folkways)
Album artwork for "Traveling Wildfire" by Dom Flemons (2023 / Smithsonian Folkways)

Dom Flemons is one of the founders of The Carolina Chocolate Drops, a beloved string band whose 2010 album won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album.

Flemons is a multi-instrumentalist and singer who, since his time in the Carolina Chocolate Drops, has released several critically acclaimed albums of his own — including 2018’s “Black Cowboy,” which follows the footsteps of thousands of African Americans who helped build the United States.

He talked about his new album, “Traveling Wildfire,” with Tom Brosseau on The Great American Folk Show. Listen above.


Tom Brosseau: About 13 years ago, everyone I knew in the world of folk music was so crazy about the Carolina Chocolate Drops -- and they still are, for that matter. Back then, they were kind of new on the scene, but they were making a big splash. They were a band of powerhouse talent. They were skilled at playing an array of instruments and experts at song curation.

Dom Flemons is one of the founders of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. It's a real pleasure to welcome him on the Great American Folk Show today.

A little bit about Dom: He's from Phoenix, Arizona. He plays the banjo and guitar. He also plays the rhythm bones -- an interesting folk instrument made out of animal bones that you kind of clink together to keep a beat.

And Dom's also a singer, and he's a song collector, and he's a doctor. My gosh, this guy does everything. He received an honorary doctoral degree from his alma mater, Northern Arizona University, in 2022. He's known for his attire, and I'm gonna kind of give you a little character sketch: A derby hat, suspenders, slacks, and a button-down shirt buttoned all the way up to the top, which is in a way a nod to old cowboys and old farmers.

You see, in hot weather, working fully clothed versus working in a t-shirt and shorts for example, not only keeps you cool, it prevents the sun from getting to you. In a way, Dom Flemons is what he sings about.

Well, since his time in the Carolina Chocolate Drops, he's released several critically acclaimed albums. In 2018, “Black Cowboy” was released, nominated for a Grammy, an album which follows the footsteps of thousands of African Americans who helped build the United States of America.

His latest, “Traveling Wildfire,” is unique to his catalog of music in that for the first time, he's the one who's doing the composing


Tom Brosseau: The word “ethereal” comes to mind. “Postapocalyptic” comes to mind, too. Can you talk a little bit about some of the feels of the album?

Dom Flemons: Well, there definitely is an album that's coming from the standpoint of heading out of what seemed like an apocalyptic time with the pandemic and with all the different social changes that have been going around in the world.

And so I tried to make an album that would create a space for the listener to be able to enter into and, and kind of be able to cathartically move through some of these really hard changes we've had in day-to-day life.

Tom Brosseau: And you did that sort of harnessing a really interesting genre of music, which I think would be classified as kind of classic country, like pre 1950s country. Can you talk a little bit about the sound of the record?

Dom Flemons: Well, when I was working on the record, I wanted to delve a little bit deeper into each of the genres that I've always sort of touched upon, just lightly. In a lot of my previous records, of course, traditional Country and Western was one of them. I also wanted to delve into country blues as well as the early singer-songwriters of the 70s, and then also sort of contemporary folk music of the 1960s with like Songs like “Song to J.C.B.” and “Guess I'm Doing Fine.”

I just wanted to showcase all these different pieces to my musical journey that would be very personal to me, as well as something that would be just a little bit different than what people have heard from me before.

Tom Brosseau: Did you have an idea, like this was the sound that you were going after when you went into the studio?

Dom Flemons: Well, when it comes to the individual songs themselves, I never try to come into an album with a preset sequence or pattern for the songs themselves as a whole. But I always try to think of each song as its own individual story. And it just sort of ended up that way where some of the instrumentation, especially the pedal steel, it seemed like that was going to be sort of the lead-off instrument for the album. And then it was kind of fade away as the record continued on.

That was one of the things I wanted to have for the album, was sort of get this really slower steel than I've done on a lot of records.

Tom Brosseau: I think that's interesting that you say that. The pedal steel sets a tone. I have to ask you about one of the songs that I just come back to over and over again: “If You Truly Love Me.”


Tom Brosseau: So gorgeous, once you hit that chorus, and your voice goes up into that high register. Will you talk a little bit about that song? I know it's one that you wrote.

Dom Flemons: Well, it was interesting with those three songs that start off the album, I wanted to really put to the test some of the conversations I had been hearing about Black country music and how there was a lack of Black country songs and performers in the community. And so instead of just talking about it, I wanted to write some songs that, at least for me, come from this sort of perspective of Black love gained and love lost.


Tom Brosseau: Was there a catalyst song?

Dom Flemons: Well, I think the title track, “Traveling Wildfire,” was really the big catalyst number. Once that one was written, I was then able to start piecing together some other songs and a song like “Dark Beauty,” for example, was one that I wrote as I was gearing up to go to the studio, and I just had this notion in my mind of like some of the things I was just hearing.

Because of course this is sort of during the period when the pandemic started to sort of roll back, people were starting to get together. And I found that a song like “Dark Beauty” was something that the audience was looking for. I found that, well being married to an African American woman myself, I found that there was a need for more songs to talk about African American women in a very direct sort of way.

I found that that was a catalyst as well. So, I sort of just let the different messages that were coming down the pipeline really guide where I was going.

Tom Brosseau: You're talking about sequencing here and the importance of it. It's not like songs are recorded and then they're just thrown on a record in any order. The record is a journey, and that's exactly how one hears it, I believe, when they sit down to listen to this.

Dom Flemons: Without a doubt. With this one. I didn't try to make it a very specific epic journey like I did with “Black Cowboys.”

With that one, I was very specific on the theme, the tone. It was a conceptual record, so it was very important for it to tell a story of the Black Cowboys. But with “Traveling Wildfire,” this one was all about emotion and feeling, and that was something that was very interesting to be able to experiment with that, whether it be the emotion and feeling of the songs we've been talking about at the very beginning, or more of the emotions and feelings of learning information.

“Nobody Wrote it Down,” is a song that you emotionally are learning information about the Black Western history. It was really interesting and very beautiful to be able to tie these songs together with the threads of emotions that you could find going from the deepest, darkest places, and then making your way out of those places and transcending.

Tom Brosseau: There's hopefulness on this record.

Dom Flemons: Absolutely, there’s always hope.

Tom Brosseau: Dom Flemons, I want to thank you so much for being on the Great American Folk Show. It sure has been a real pleasure to talk to you today.

Dom Flemons: Well, thank you so much. It's just a pleasure to talk with you as well. Thank you for having me on the program.


This segment is from The Great American Folk Show, Episode 79. New episodes air Saturdays at 5pm on Prairie Public.

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