Grammy Award-winning folk singer Dom Flemons talks about his latest album, Black Cowboys, and debuts his latest music video, “Goin’ Down The Road.“
Years in the making, Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Dom Flemons’ historically rich new album, Black Cowboys, is finally out.
The album, which is on the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings label, pays tribute to the music, culture, and complex history of the Wild West. “The songs and poems featured on the album take the listener on an illuminating journey from the trails to the rails of the Old West,” the label explains. “This century-old story follows the footsteps of the thousands of African American pioneers who helped build the United States of America.”
At 60 minutes, with a 40-page booklet with extensive notes and photos, it was a labor-intensive labor of love for the Arizona native. It’s Flemons’ second solo project since leaving the Carolina Chocolate Drops, which he co-founded in 2005. The group garnered major success and received a Grammy in 2010 for Best Traditional Folk Album for Genuine Negro Jig, a Grammy nomination in 2013 for Best Folk Album for Leaving Eden, and was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame.
After 9 years in the group, Flemons left to begin his solo career; he came out with his first solo album, Prospect Hill, in mid-2014 and began paving his new road.
C&I recently talked with Flemons about Black Cowboys, its historical significance, and the process of creating the album.
Cowboys & Indians: What are you most excited about with the release of Black Cowboys?
Dom Flemons: The thing that excites me the most is that the album is meant to be sort of an introduction to the whole subject of black cowboys and African-Americans of the West. Just to be able to get that idea out there and to be able to let people really sink into the history and see how valuable this particular part of our American history is, that’s something that I’m most excited about. Then, of course, the music is something, also, that excites me as well because it’s the first record I’ve put out in a couple of years and I’m excited to get that out there for folks.
C&I: What do you hope your fans will get out of it?
Flemons: I hope that they’ll enjoy the music and they’ll get to be exposed to cowboy music in a way they might not have before. And then, also, to be able to see the multifaceted nature of Western culture. I feel like, in a way, a lot of people just aren’t that aware that Western culture is extremely diverse.
C&I: What inspired this album and what was the writing and recording process like?
Flemons: Well, I’m originally from Phoenix, Arizona, so this is, in some ways, sort of a full circle for me in terms of the subject matter. About, I’d say, close to 10 years ago, I was driving back from the East Coast to visit family in Phoenix and I came across a book called The Negro Cowboys by Philip Durham. The book talked about how about one in every four cowboys who helped settle the West were African-American.
Being of both African-American and Mexican-American descent, I was very surprised to learn that there was a bigger picture of cowboys than I had been led to believe through popular culture ... That was something that interested me, so from that point on I started researching different stories. And then I started finding out that some of the most well-known songs, like “Home on the Range” and “Goodbye Old Paint,” had stories associated with black cowboys.
As it then turned out, I found out that the documentation of cowboy music began, in part, by an enthusiast by the name of Jack Thorpe, [who] met a bunch of black cowboys on the range and was inspired by their songs and decided to create a songbook that would document cowboy culture. This was a couple of years before John Lomax did his quintessential cowboy ballads songbook. And so it was really interesting to find that black cowboys are really at the center of cowboy songs in the traditional sense. ...
Assuming that most people might not have ever listened to a cowboy record, per se, outside of country music, I decided to have a couple of gems from the cowboy repertoire: “Tying Knots in the Devil’s Tail,” which was from Prescott, Arizona, and also “Little Joe the Wrangler,” which is considered to be the first cowboy song. Being an album on African-American culture, I decided to bring in aspects of the East Texas blues and the blues songsters, who are a strong part of the tradition continuing on in parts of Texas and Louisiana and Arkansas. And I wanted to just bring that aspect into it as well. They’re very multilayered with what I was trying to do when it came to the material.
C&I: And when it came to actually recording?
Flemons: I did two recording sessions: one with a session where I had two young musicians, Brian Farrell and Dante Pope, joining me. And then I had another session with two Grammy Award-winning artists, Jimbo Mathus and Alvin Youngblood Hart, joining me. That was just to get two different flavors of music, and it was really a joy to be able to work with those guys there. Just the final bit, in terms of the packaging: I wanted to use historic photos, but I also wanted to do something that was going to transcend into modern life and modern culture with the material. Working with Timothy Duffy, who is a great photographer that works with tintype photography, we re-created some of the old-time cowboy looks and sort of the imagery, using an old camera from the early 20th century, a Deardorff 11-by-14 tintype camera.
C&I: How is this new album different from your previous work?
Flemons: You know with this album, I’ve been able to incorporate a little bit of everything that I’ve picked up over time. … Even though I’ve always loved cowboy music, I’ve never done a cowboy album before. So this is my first foray into doing cowboy music. In that way, it’s something that people haven’t heard from me at all. ... I’m a big fan of Marty Robbins and Willie Nelson and the Riders in the Sky, and it’s a deep part of my own personal story with cowboy music. ... So in some ways, the album is very personal in a way that I don’t think I’ve been able to put that out on a record before.
C&I: Any stories about getting Black Cowboys from concept to album?
Flemons: Oh yeah. The song “Goodbye Old Paint” is a song that came together through a lot of different pieces of research and also taking a lot of different types of performance styles. The song is one of the most well-known cowboy songs in the repertoire, so when I started researching it, the fellow who recorded it for the Library of Congress, Jess Morris, he told a story about learning the song from an ex-slave named Charley Willis, who worked for his father. And when I started looking into it, you know, on the recording, the original field recording, Jess Morris is a little bit older, so it’s a kind of a scratchy old recording. When I tried to think about how I wanted to perform it — Jess plays it with just fiddle and singing — but I decided to put it on the guitar and then I adapted what I heard Jess Morris playing and kind of what it seemed like his arrangement for the song was going to be.
I came across a book called The Beautiful Music All Around Us by Stephen Wade and he has a chapter on Jess Morris. And as it turned out, Jess Morris started out playing fiddle, because there was another black cowboy who taught him the rudiments of the fiddle, but then he went to the Conservatory in Texas and he learned how to play classical violin. So he learned how to arrange and he learned theory, but he always wanted to keep a foot in the country square dance fiddling tradition; then ultimately, he decided he wanted to be a cowboy fiddler, so he didn’t want to keep up with doing the classical music. So to me, I thought that was such an interesting sort of cross-section of a musician who is not just a folk musician, but then he’s a trained musician, but then he decides to be a folk musician after having gotten this training on violin.
So I started thinking about how to arrange the song so that I could show off this beautiful little break section that he plays on the violin. And then when it came to singing, I noticed that there’s just a rise in the verse section that, to me, reminded me of a lot of early bluegrass. So I kind of jumped into a mode of singing a plaintive bluegrass high-lonesome yell. So I got a little bit of that. Also, with it being a song that’s somewhat in the ballad tradition, I decided to really treat the telling of the text like an acapella old-time ballad. And then finally, knowing that Jess learned the song from Charley Willis, I wanted to create an aspect of blues in the way I sang it as well, but not so much like a full-on blues, like we would think of a 12-bar blues, but something that had the blues inflection that could fit within that ballad style.
So that was a lot of what I did to put that particular arrangement together. Also, I got to meet the great Don Edwards at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. And the way that I played the guitar, it was very influenced by my experience seeing Don Edwards play music. Then I thought to myself, Okay, I got to figure out how to get some sort of a Don Edwards-y vibe. So I had a particular lick I play in there that’s influenced by Don Edwards.
C&I: Maybe you guys can collaborate on music someday.
Flemons: That would be wonderful. Yeah, I’ll have to give him a call about that. At first it was an independent research project, where I was just grabbing the information and I was trying to put it in a way that was going to be respectful to all parties involved. But when I went to the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, I was amazed that so many of the performers and the poets and everyone were so excited to see that there was a person that wanted to tell the stories of the black cowboys that were from the Southwest, who was a person of African-American descent and Mexican descent. ...
C&I: You’ve also performed as a soloist at venues like Carnegie Hall, Cecil Sharp House, The Grand Ole Opry, and the National Museum of African-American History and Culture at the opening ceremonies. Was one the most memorable?
Flemons: That’s a tough one there. I’ll tell you, two of them that you did mention stick out to me. One is the performance at Carnegie Hall. That was at a tribute concert to Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly. Lead Belly is one of the great East Texas songsters, who, to me, really opened up my ideas about black cowboys in the sense of how the musical tradition lived forward. ... I also performed at the opening ceremonies for the National Museum of African-American History and Culture [as] part of the African-American Legacy Recording Series from Folkways, which is in partnership with the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. ...
C&I: Are there any songs that didn’t make this album that we can expect maybe sometime in the near future?
Flemons: Oh, boy, I mean, there were so many. For the sake of keeping a real concise narrative, the subtitle of the album is “Songs From the Trails to the Rails.” One of the great stories I found was the story of how many of the black cowboys became Pullman porters on the railroad lines. And so I kept the narrative real tight into that. But there were other ones, like “Home on the Range” — John Lomax learned that from a black cook. There was a great song that I heard called “Punchin’ the Dough” — a song about how this cook is saying how easy they’ve got it now that he’s the cook. … Because while you’re punching the cattle, I’m punching the dough. That’s one song that I found too late to add it onto the album.
C&I: What is something that your fans might not know about you?
Flemons: [One] thing that I can’t show on stage is that I collect a lot of records and books and I have a pretty massive collection of materials talking about all of these different subjects that I sing and play. That’s something that I don’t think most people know, since they haven’t come by my house, you know?
C&I: When you’re back in your native Arizona, what are some of your favorite places to visit?
Flemons: With Arizona, I’ve got a couple of great places. There’s South Mountain and the Little Stone Castle that’s up in South Mountain. I like to go up to Flagstaff whenever I can. I also like to go over to Drumbeat Music, which is a music store that is a Native American music distribution center. It used to be Canyon Records many years ago and it was the first independent label to focus strictly on Native American music, and so I like to go by there when I can. I also like to go to the many wonderful Mexican food restaurants that are over in Arizona, especially in Phoenix. We have a very special type of Mexican food. And then The Musical Instrument Museum has been a great addition to the Phoenix Metropolitan area. It’s a very beautiful, comprehensive museum showing instruments from every province of the world.
For more information on Dom Flemons, his upcoming tour dates, and to purchase Black Cowboys, visit his website.