Shine's CatchUp with The Fascinating Dom Flemons
Welcome to Shine's CatchUp where WFPK host Laura Shine catches up with musicians about their music, new albums, or whatever they've recently been up to.
Musician Dom Flemons has been steeped in the past with always an eye on the future and present. He has done massive research on the beginnings of American music and especially the contribution of African Americans to those traditions. He was a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops with Rhiannon Giddens for many years and now is a solo musician with a new album called Traveling Wildfire on Smithsonian Folkways Records. I got to catch up with Dom and find out more about his new album of original songs.
I tend to associate you with giving old songs new life but this album is mostly original new songs. Did you set out to do an all original album and how did it come about?
When I’m making an album I never try to have a pre-set plan on how I want the album to sound in its final form. When I was making Traveling Wildfire it made the most sense to let the original songs take the lead. There were a lot of things on my mind when I made the album. When I started gathering songs together it became clear to me that most people were not aware that I could write songs even though I’ve had them on all of my solo recordings. As I began to work on this album it was during the pandemic and I wanted to figure out a way to give the listener a way to process the world around them without being too didactic. A few of the songs were pieces I had written years ago like “Slow Dance with You” and “It’s Cold Inside” and then there were others like "Traveling Wildfire" and” Dark Beauty” that were written recently. As I began to sequence the record I saw a through line between the themes of love and loss as well as the realization that every single person I’ve talked to has had ups and downs due to a rough last couple of years. It was my goal to make a record that would be inviting for folks who need some good music to get them through the aftermath of so much change in the world.
You also cover a previously unreleased song written by Bob Dylan called "Guess I'm Doing Fine" that also features Kentuckian Sam Bush. How did that come about and what was behind choosing that song?
When bringing songs together I thought it would be good to interpret a few songs from the 1960s folk revival. I had worked on an arrangement of Eric Andersen’s song “Song to JCB” about JC Burris and it dawned on me that a Bob Dylan song would be a great juxtaposition. I had my manager reach out to Dylan’s people and they sent back a few songs that they felt would work with my style with “Guess I’m Doing Fine” being one of them. I knew about “Guess I’m Doing Fine” from an old bootleg I had of Bob Dylan from around 20 years ago. One of the famed Whitmark demos, I took it into the studio and began reframing the song’s structure to fit my style. The recording we got in the studio took sort of a bluegrass flavor and I knew it would need a fiddle and Sam Bush was my first choice.
I thought of Sam Bush for “Guess I’m Doing Fine” because I heard him play fiddle at a festival a few years back and it really moved me so I dropped him a line and he was so kind as to add his fiddle to the track. It made for a powerful statement.
You worked with Ted Hutt as producer for Traveling Wildfire. What did he bring to the project?
It was great to work with Ted Hutt because he wore a lot of hats as a producer. He was behind the mixing board of course, along with engineer Ryan Mall and Dave Cooley for mastering, making the mystical sounds that define the final record. All of the most important things he brought to the record was focusing on each song, and making sure we had the strongest material to make the best record we could make and making sure we had the right studio which was KingSize SoundLabs. A week before we went to the studio we sat down together and ran down every song I wanted to do making sure that song structure was sound and that they showcased my most natural voice.
I’d say the biggest thing that Ted brought outside of us working together was the top notch group of musicians who played on the sessions. Matt Pynn on the pedal steel, David Hildalgo Jr. on the drums and Marc Orrell on organ were a powerful combination along with Lashon Halley who provided background and harmony vocals.. He also brought James Fearnley from the Pogues on piano accordion, which was a dream come true as well. You always want a producer who can take a basic idea of an artist and turn it into something much more spectacular which is what Ted did. He also played a great rhythm guitar on “Tough Luck” and “Songster Revival”.
You've been steeped in Traditional Folk Music for a very long time and specifically educating yourself and others on the significant contributions African Americans have made to the genre. You've even explored those contributions to Kentucky music. Can you tell us some of what you've found out about Louisville?
Some of my favorite musicians of the early 20th century came from Louisville. Just to name a few would be blues singer Sara Martin, guitarist Sylvester Weaver and jug blower Earl McDonald and his group Louisville Jug Blowers are pioneering artists who came from the area. All three of these artists were some of the first artists to open the American public to guitar accompanied blues and jug band music. The cross section of blues, vaudeville, ragtime, and jazz with the old-time string band music of the white and black traditions created a powerful musical melting pot that is still being felt today. I wrote a bit about this phenomenon a few years ago in an essay that accompanied Tyler’s Childers’ 2020 album Long Violent History which I played on as well with the jug. It’s worth mentioning that Louisville is the home of the jug bands because of the distinct stone mason jug that carry it and the music that can be made after they are emptied.
Check out the official video for "It's Cold Inside" by Dom Flemons from his new album Traveling Wildfire.