–May 16th, The Bright Box Theater, Winchester, VA
I sat down with Grammy award winning “American Songster” Dom Flemons recently before one of his shows. Dom is known for bringing his unique style to several traditional styles of music. We discussed Dom’s style of playing, his current projects, and where the future of folk music is headed.
The Whole (S)tory (TWS): I want to start out asking how you got into old time and blues from your background and growing up in Arizona. I don’t really think of that being an area where there is an old time music scene.
Dom Flemons (DF): Growing up in Arizona there wasn’t a ton of folk music around. There was a very specific Phoenix, Flagstaff, and Prescott Folk scene, so there were people playing that I came across. That was maybe when I was about 16 or 17 years old.
I started playing harmonica and guitar and listening to a lot of different records. I started watching a lot of different documentaries as well. I watched all the History of Rock and Roll, that got me started into thinking about Folk music. It mentioned Bob Dylan, the early New York Village Folk Scene and also the Newport Folk Festival. That was where I started and when I got into college it kept evolving. I’d pick up a record and learn a song by somebody, people like Cat Stevens and Van Morrison.
I was also writing a lot of songs at that time. I kind of got sick of playing music after a certain point so I started doing slam poetry for a few years.
I was always very studious and wanting to get into the history of music. When I’d hear people, I’d want to hear about what influenced them, what came after them, and also what was contemporary to them at the same time. I always kept that up. At the college library at Northern Arizona University they had a lot of folk records that they’d gotten from the early 60’s going forward so I had access to a lot of different music.
TWS: You mentioned the word contemporary, on your website I was reading about how you have a contemporary approach to the type of music you play. How do you think the way you play makes it contemporary?
DF: The thing I’d say for contemporary is just not treating it like it’s old. When you reinterpret music it becomes contemporary again just in itself and that’s something people don’t generally tend to understand. I don’t try to treat it like it’s a precious old music. I treat it like it’s something that’s contemporary, it’s relevant to now. Performing it that’s how I treat the music, so that’s how I do it my own sort of way.
In terms of the songs I write, I take different forms of music, take different chord changes and what not, and I add my own different changes in there to make it different and I specifically do that when I craft the songs.
TWS: How do you think playing in a different style that’s not necessarily traditional appeals to different ages? I know a lot of older people, if they are an old time music fan for example, they are strict, they want it to be traditional, and don’t like it to be new. How do you think that varies between the different ages of people who might be a fan of your music?
DF: I think there’s definitely different sets of the whole thing. With some of the older crowd they’ve been at it for quite a while and they’re looking for a specific sort of way for the music to sound. I’m kind of half in half in my own thoughts about it. I feel like now things are so pieced together, the genres are not strict, especially with people post digital revolution. I think there’s a lot less idea of genres being a specific thing. In my ten years being in the old time music scene I think things have changed a lot, there were still links to the older world of old time music from the late 60’s and early 70’s revival. There were a lot more people that were playing from the country as well as people that came from the city that were reviving those styles. I think there was a combination of those two different camps more so than now. I think there are still people around who are playing the music, it never dies, but it’s just a different aesthetic of what that music should and could be.
I’m kind of half in half with it. I feel like genres and styles of music sound like a certain type of music for a reason, it’s not wrong to add things to those styles. If you are interested in playing in a specific style, you have to learn it and we are in an age where there’s instant gratification with everything. People just want to be masters at anything and traditional music’s not based on that. It’s based on playing it a certain way, a certain style, and learning it a certain way, then you can add on to it. That’s something where people think it’s just music anyone can do anything they want, which is still true, that’s very true, but you have to learn certain styles to really get into that type of music, besides that it’s just become general music.
TWS: Do you feel as if you have to change what you play based on who your audience is going to be, or do you feel like you just want to play your style?
DF: Well, there’s two types of music that I play. There’s music that I personally enjoy and there’s music that I play on stage and there’s overlap, constant overlap, but that’s not necessarily the same thing. There are songs that I’ll play at home that I wouldn’t put on stage. There’s just certain expectations that you can have with your audience and at a certain point you build a career on that. You have to do somethings that your audience will appreciate and if you branch out farther you have to try to bring your audience along. I’m one of those people that tries to figure out how to get a variety of sounds and keep as many people that are interested in my music as I can.
TWS: You have a variety of age groups that will come out and see you and that’s great. It’s nice to be able to appeal to everyone. Why do you think that keeping the traditional music alive and passing it down to the future generations is important?
DF: I think it’s just great music. It’s music that wouldn’t necessarily come to a person’s attention without people playing it. It’s folk music. It’s not like rock music or anything that you would find in the store, or stuff that’s on TV or that you hear on the radio. It’s definitely a music that’s in it’s own different world. For there to be younger performers or performers that are advocating for those styles of music and playing them in a way that’s relevant to people now is important. People are more interested in seeing somebody on stage playing this stuff. More so than sitting with an old recording and listening to this stuff. I think it’s very important to be out there and performing it so that people will hear it and you hope for the best. You hope they’ll look up the other stuff. If I mention someone’s name like Papa Charlie Jackson, I’d hope that they would look Papa Charlie up and get into his music. Without me being out there they might never hear that name.
TWS: I feel as if Folk music in general has gotten a lot more commercialized the last few years. It’s on TV shows and in movies. Do you think that’s a good thing, do you think it’s changing the way people look at folk music?
DF: I think both. It’s good in general just because it brings more people in. When I came into it, there were a lot of older people. There weren’t many younger people around. There has to be new blood that comes in after a certain point and in that way it’s good. In the other way, like I said before there are the tradition bearers and the people that have kind of been the standard holders for what the music is or how it’s supposed to sound. They are getting older and older and as they go away the music will change and that’s something that I find is a little sad to see just because its not treated with the same sort of reverence as the older generation held it. I think there are good and bad ways. A lot of the older people are very cantankerous people so for them to get out of the way is good but at the same time it’s very important that they had standards with what they did. Now people just don’t have standards, they just think that’s good I want to do that music.
TWS: I know, for me growing up in the folk music scene, it’s always hard getting other people my age interested. It’s hard for you to be excited about something when it’s hard to get people your age excited about it. In that way, I think it’s a great thing that more people are getting exposed to it.
DF: Absolutely, I think it’s a great thing overall, it’s good to have new blood coming in and its good for people to get interested but that doesn’t particularly mean I have to be into the music that’s getting them interested.
TWS: Do you think there’s a lot of younger potential out there right now? I know it’s very hard to make a living doing Old Time or Folk music in general. Do you think people are happy about that path as a career or do you think its just dying in a sense that it’s so hard to make it?
DF: Music’s always a hard business with anybody and being in a specialized type of music like Folk and Old Time music is also a very hard thing. It’s all a matter of what your gauge of success is. When I got into doing music I didn’t specifically think about success as making a living at it. I didn’t think I would make a living at it, but then I am making a living at it currently and have been for several years and that’s a really good thing. I’m very fortunate for that.
The music industry has changed over the past ten years in a lot of ways, it’s still kind of up in the air, its not very clear. Now we’ve made it so that people don’t have to buy music any more. There was about a hundred years where people had to buy music or see the performer live. They built up an industry to bank on people selling so many records and anticipation that when their record comes out ten million people are going to go and buy it. Now in the post digital age coming on nobody has to buy these records at all so now if someone sells a million records, people are just over the moon about it. At the same time the money isn’t bigger, it’s actually less money than they were making before. It’s tricky being in the arts. Society doesn’t really understand what it means to be an artist. It’s a counter culture of business because it’s not a nine to five where you go home every weekend. You’re everybody else’s party so they think that’s what you do all the time. You have to work in a totally different world.
TWS: What projects are you working on now that you’d like people to know about?
DF: I just put out an album last summer called Prospect Hill and I’m really proud of that album, that’s my third solo record. I just put out an EP called What Got Over and I currently have a free link online for people to download it. It’s a companion record toProspect Hill. When I recorded it, I made it so I could make it a multi faceted record.
At the moment I’m just doing shows promoting Prospect Hill. I’ll probably start working on a new record toward the end of this year and have something out by next year. I have a lot of really prestigious shows coming up. I just did a celebration for Leadbelly, the great folk musician. It’s his 125th birthday this year. I did a show at the Kennedy center celebrating his legacy which had a lot of really amazing performers and I had a great time.
Keep up to date with Dom’s work on his website.