Dom Flemons made his name playing old-time folk music as both a solo artist and a co-founder of the popular, contemporary black string band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops. But lately he’s been thinking a lot about cowboys. A recent tune Flemons wrote concerns Bass Reeves, one of the first black Deputy U.S. Marshals west of the Mississippi River. Working as a federal peace officer in Indian Territory, Reeves is said to have arrested over 3,000 felons and shot and killed fourteen outlaws in self-defense. Reeves is also believed to be the inspiration for the classic TV western, “The Lone Ranger.”
“Black cowboys were one of the essential parts of the civilizing of the West,” Flemons explained. “Being a cowhand was one of the first independent jobs from slavery. The classic cowboy songs tend to have these great stories with them that are connected to black cowhands. They are not so much hidden, but like the black string band stuff, they have not been talked about in a way that is easy for people to understand in the context of American history or music.”
The Bass Reeves song will be on Flemons’ next record, the follow-up to 2014’s celebrated “Prospect Hill.” The artist will take a break from recording to perform at the Clifton Center on Thursday, March 3. His show is the highlight of a week of events at the center that are devoted to African American culture in Kentucky. “I’m going to have my bassist who doubles on fiddle, Brian Farrow, with me,” Flemons said. “We’ll be doing a duo show. It’ll be a nice combination of old time songs that people have heard before, a lot of stuff from ‘Prospect Hill’ and ‘What Got Over’ (a Record Store Day release), and I’ll also be featuring a couple of songs from my upcoming cowboy record.”
In addition to his musical performance, Flemons, who is a regular contributor to the Oxford American magazine, will give a lecture at the Clifton Center on “African-American Music Traditions of Kentucky and Appalachia” on Wednesday, March 2. Flemons recently recorded some music that will be in the upcoming PBS folk documentary, “American Epic.”
“Right now, at the beginning to the 21st century, we are in a similar spot as we were during the Industrial Revolution,” he said. “The major label system is changing. They blame it on streaming, but it’s really that people have so much access to music now. They seem to be gravitating to a time when music was more rooted. I don’t think it is nostalgia so much, but that the old music had something eternal about it.”
Flemons discovered folk music in, of all places, Phoenix, Arizona. His began his music career playing percussion in his high school marching band. After picking up guitar and harmonica as a teenager, Flemons was drawn to folk artists like Pete Seeger, Dave Von Ronk and Phil Ochs. In 2005, he attended the first Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, North Carolina. That is where he met Rhiannon Giddens and Sule Greg Wilson, the other founding members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Flemons spent eight years recording and touring with the group. Its 2010 album, “Genuine Negro Jig,” won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album. But despite the Chocolate Drops’ success, Flemons continued to write original music. In 2013, he left the band to pursue his solo career.
“The Chocolate Drops were a special beast in that we didn’t need to write most of our material because we were mining such a rich catalog,” Flemons said. “When I decided to leave the group, it was good to be able to go into my back pocket and pull out songs that were never going to work with the Chocolate Drops. Especially, something like ‘Too Long (I’ve Been Gone).’ I had that one for three or four years, but I knew it would never work in a string band. It needed electric guitar.”
Another standout track from “Prospect Hill,” which Flemons is sure to play at the Clifton Center, is “Hot Chicken.” He wrote the tune several years ago, after the Chocolate Drops visited Nashville’s famous Prince’s Hot Chicken. Since then, the dish has become a national sensation. It can be found in Louisville at Royal’s Hot Chicken and Joelle’s Hot Chicken.
“At the time I wrote it, hot chicken was just beginning its ascent as an American culinary darling,” Flemons said. “Now, even KFC has Nashville Hot Chicken on its menu. It’s hard to imagine this obscure black recipe, a regional style of fried chicken, becoming an interest to the mainstream. But I got that ‘Hot Chicken’ song and I’m waiting for them to contact me to license it.”
Hopefully, someone from Yum! Brands will be at the Clifton Center on March 3. Tickets to the March 2 talk are $5. Admission to the concert is $22. More details here.