As a co-founder of the Grammy Award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, Dom Flemons helped change mainstream notions about old-time music, by highlighting the tradition of African-American string bands.
Now he has released a new solo album, “Black Cowboys,” featuring folk music from the American West that was created and passed along by African-American musicians. “One in four cowboys who settled the American West were African-American,” said Flemons, who will be one of the headline performers at the 2018 Kingman Island Bluegrass and Folk Festival. Cowboy songs are an important part of American culture, he said, and black musicians are part of that tradition.
Flemons grew up in Arizona, exposed to many kinds of music. When he was 16 he picked up a guitar and discovered folksingers like Bob Dylan, Mississippi John Hurt and Leadbelly, and from there he found songs from the 1920s and 30s. Artists who sang the traditional tunes and passed them down were called “songsters.”
After he attended an event called the Black Banjo Gathering in 2005, he moved to North Carolina and helped start the Chocolate Drops, who won a Grammy in 2010 for Best Traditional Folk record.
When Flemons left the Chocolate Drops in 2013, he wanted to play other kinds of African-American folk music and began digging into the music of black cowboys.
His new record includes “Texas Easy Street,” which is structured similar to a blues number, even though it predates the time when blues was identified as a genre. Another track is “Home on the Range,” one of the best-known cowboy songs. According to the folk archivist Alan Lomax, the most familiar version of “Home” can be traced to a field recording of a black bartender from San Antonio.
There are numbers by Leadbelly and Roy Acuff, all stripped-down arrangements that one might hear around a campfire, if all of the cowboys were exceptionally good players. Flemons plays many of the instruments himself, along with bassist/fiddler Brian Farrow and other musicians.
Flemons also wrote three original songs for the record, including “Steel Pony Blues.” It tells the story of a cowboy who was born into slavery in Tennessee, moved west to work on a ranch and later took a job as a Pullman porter on a railroad, a transition that was common for many black cowboys around the end of the 19th century.
For his set at the Kingman Island Festival, Flemons will debut a new format he calls the American Songster Revue. He’ll be joined by a few other singers including the bluesman Guy Davis and Amythyst Kiah. “I’m going to curate the show so everybody can do a few songs of their own repertoire,” he explained, and he will also select songs for the group to perform. The format will allow the group to delve into folksongs from a variety of sources. “It’s a project I’ve wanted to do for quite a while,” said Flemons.
The festival has evolved from its beginnings as a strictly local event, but Flemons actually qualifies as a local act now. He and his wife moved to Silver Spring about a year ago to facilitate his ongoing collaborations with the Smithsonian Institution, which released “Black Cowboys” on its Smithsonian Folkways label. Since then they have welcomed their first child, a daughter.
For those who aren’t up for a full-day outdoor festival, Flemons will also be part of a Mike Seeger commemorative, old-time banjo show at the Birchmere on June 17.
Sam Lewis wasn’t taking anything for granted when he moved to Nashville nine years ago – he got a job at Walmart to pay the bills. But his catchy songs and soulful voice grabbed the attention of artists like Marty Stuart and Chris Stapleton, who compared him to Townes Van Zandt.
He hasn’t worked at Walmart for a while now, and his new record, “Loversity,” is getting a lot of positive notice from publications like Rolling Stone and American Songwriter.
Lewis started out performing in coffee shops, and he can still remind the listener of a laid-back singer-songwriter who just happens to be playing with some of the finest musicians in Nashville. Lead guitar parts on “Loversity” were played by Kenny Vaughan, who is in Marty Stuart’s band, and Dan Cohen, who’s with Lewis on his current tour.
“Those guys are so talented, I basically just write these songs and melodies,” said Lewis. “All the rest … I gave them permission. I wanted them to be the voices of the entire project.”
The record is full of slinky riffs and tremolo-laden guitar hooks, and the entire production evokes the Muscle Shoals sound of the 1960s. The vibe perfectly suits Lewis’s songs. In a voice sometimes reminiscent of Van Morrison or Sam Cooke, he pleads for kindness in various forms and shines a loving spotlight on life.
“Loversity” is a word that Lewis made up, having to do with our brief time in the world, using it wisely and being a “cog in the wheel” of humankind. “My music is nothing more than my soul personified,” he said. “I’m a child and I don’t know anything and I’m done trying to pretend that I do.”
Best of the Rest of Summer
Summer is a traditionally slow time on Capitol Hill, but there are some great roots music shows coming up for those who don’t flee the city:
Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons, June 19 at The Hill Center. These Seattle-based artists will observe Juneteenth with songs and stories that examine the end of slavery in the United States. http://www.benjoemusic.com/
Dan Baird and Homemade Sin, June 28 at Hill Country. Before Baird’s song “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” became a smash radio hit in the 1980s, he fronted a legendary Atlanta bar band, the Satellites. A typical Saturday night set would feature songs by George Jones, Joe South and the Stones. He hasn’t forgotten his roots. http://www.danbairdandhomemadesin.net/
The Honey Dewdrops and the Caleb Stine Band, July 7 at Hill Country. Two beloved Baltimore acts, Laura Wortman and Kagey Parrish, who have been touring as the Honey Dewdrops for nine years, sing sweet harmonies with old-time instrumentation. Stine is involved in many projects and has released six records. http://www.thehoneydewdrops.com/
Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express, July 19 at The Hamilton. He’s played in a psychedelic rock band and worked with Kelly Willis and Alejandro Escovedo. These days Prophet and his band can transport an audience to a blissed-out place. The man loves what he does and you probably will, too. http://chuckprophet.com/
Andrea Von Kampen, July 19 at Hill Country. Her guitar playing and voice are almost pristine, and strings add a pop sheen to her records. But there are also rootsy touches and a country feeling on songs like “Two Kids.” She clinches her folk music cred with a version of the traditional “Dink’s Song” and her own “Trainsong,” which has more than a million plays on Spotify. https://www.andreavonkampen.com/
Hayes Carll, Aug. 4 at City Winery. Carll is a fine songwriter in the best Texas tradition, and a funny storyteller to boot. This new venue in Ivy City is part of a national group. http://hayescarll.com/
Rodney Crowell at The Hamilton on Aug. 25. Once an upstart, now almost an elder statesman of country, Crowell has written many great songs and had his share of hits, too. https://www.rodneycrowell.com/music/
Charles Walston lives on Capitol Hill and plays in The Truck Farmers, performing at Mr. Henry’s on June 14.