In the latest episode of the award-winning podcast miniseries Sepia Tones: Exploring Black Appalachian Music, released on Friday, July 29, hosts Dr. William Turner and Dr. Ted Olson are joined by lauded musician Dom Flemons for a compelling conversation on the many Appalachian influences and inspirations that have come to shape his music.
When it comes to the cadre of professional musicians keeping American folk traditions alive today, there’s no one quite like Dom Flemons. His energetic and eclectic performances have a way of taking audiences on a journey into the past as he sings, tells stories, and cycles effortlessly between guitar, banjo, and more obscure instruments like the fife or rhythm bones.
A founding member of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, Flemons has devoted his time in recent years to a productive solo career, releasing a steady stream of themed albums, including collaborations with the blues artist Boo Hanks and English folksinger Martin Simpson. His 2018 album, Black Cowboys, released on Smithsonian Folkways, was nominated for both Grammy and Blues Music awards.
Behind much of Flemons’ repertoire is a fascination with American folk music and a fondness for overlooked figures whom some might consider mere footnotes in music history. Thanks to his largely self-directed scholarship, he has developed a near-encyclopedic knowledge of early Black American music styles and become a sought-after authority. Flemons appears prominently in the Ken Burns 2019 Country Music documentary miniseries and recently curated a playlist for the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville, Tennessee.
In the first new episode of Sepia Tones since the miniseries was awarded an e-Appalachia Award by the Appalachian Studies Association and an Award of Distinction from the East Tennessee Historical Society, Flemons describes how an early encounter with a North Carolina musician inspired him to dive into the Piedmont blues style.
“It really started when I got deep into the recordings of the folk revival,” Flemons says. “I got into the recordings that had been made on Smithsonian Folkways, and I found a wonderful album called Freight Train and Other North Carolina Songs by Elizabeth Cotten. I was so drawn to the sound of Elizabeth Cotten’s music. I just fell in love with that record, and I wanted to figure out a way to learn how to play in that style.”
Eventually Flemons would sell most of his possessions and move from his home state of Arizona to further pursue music in North Carolina with future bandmates Rhiannon Giddens, Justin Robinson, and Joe Thompson. As Flemons explains in his conversation with Olson and Turner, the new group was so moved after seeing a documentary about the Knoxville musician Howard Armstrong (better known as Louie Bluie) that they ultimately named their band in a winking homage to Armstrong’s Tennessee Chocolate Drops.
Although he grew up far from Appalachia, Flemons quickly found a connection by tracing the country music beloved by some of his own family members back to some of its roots in the mountains.
“My father was my first introduction to loving country music,” Flemons explains in the episode. “He was always listening to country and Western . . . and my grandmother loved Minnie Pearl. That ended up, for me, being a part of the story too: continuing to tell people [that] Black people like country music too. . . . There’s a more diverse background to the music than people may have given credit in the first place.”
Music featured in the episode includes live performances on banjo and guitar, as well as selections drawn from Flemons’ time with the Carolina Chocolate Drops and his recent album Black Cowboys.
Sepia Tones is funded through the African American Experiences in the Smokies project in collaboration with Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is distributed through GSMA’s existing podcast, Smoky Mountain Air, and available through Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher, and most other major streaming services. The fourth episode of the miniseries can be found here.