As a resolute preservationist, storyteller and instrumentalist, Dom Flemons has long set himself apart by finding forgotten folk songs and making them live again. His work has been recognized with a GRAMMY, two Emmy nominations, a U.S. Artists Fellowship Award, and inclusion in an exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. For Traveling Wildfire, his first new album since 2018’s Black Cowboys and second for Smithsonian Folkways, he turns to an important, overlooked voice that he's proudly rediscovered: his own.
“Knowing that I was going to be showcasing original material for a good deal of the record, I wanted to give people a different view of my songwriting,” he says. “I figured that I’ve done enough records where people know that I can do old-time material. I didn’t let myself be limited by that. There are some spots on this album that will be a surprise for people. I think it will take them into a very different headspace in terms of what they’d expect from me. But that’s also something I wanted to do. As an artist, you have to think, ‘What aren’t they going to expect?’”
Recorded in Los Angeles with producer Ted Hutt (Old Crow Medicine Show, Dropkick Murphys), Traveling Wildfire represents The American Songster’s journey for the past two decades and takes a deeper look at how those moments changed his life. The album begins quietly, like an intimate conversation in the middle of the night, and as it unfolds, it calls to mind the initial sparks that happen at the beginning of a new relationship. The indelible hallmarks of traditional country music are woven throughout the first half of the project, while the second half eases into an acoustic, up-beat style that showcases his talents as an arranger, musician, and interpreter of folk songs.
“When I was coming up with these particular numbers for Traveling Wildfire, I wanted to have a flavor of very traditional country & western music that could also reflect the black experience from my perspective,” Flemons says. “One of the things that I’ve noticed since Black Cowboys is that people are wanting to hear more black country music that reflects both their culture, environment, and values while still sounding like it’s rooted in tradition.”
Raised in Phoenix, Arizona, Flemons comes from a family of civil rights leaders, Tuskegee Airmen, and preachers who were prominent figures in the black community of Arizona. His father, a former basketball player and member of the black fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi, introduced him to classic country music. As a kid listening to local radio, Flemons then learned more about country legends like Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell. In college, he took an online class on country music history and first heard the music of DeFord Bailey and Charley Pride. That discovery ignited a passion for finding other African American performers with country songs in their repertoire.
After graduating from Northern Arizona University (which presented him with an honorary doctorate in 2022), Flemons moved to North Carolina and co-founded the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a string band of young black musicians who won a GRAMMY for their 2010 album, Genuine Negro Jig.
Along with earning a GRAMMY nomination for Black Cowboys in the category of Best Folk Album, Flemons was included in the American Currents exhibit in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. He also received two Emmy nominations through an appearance on Songcraft Presents (PBS). In 2019, he was chosen to be a Spotlight Artist at the five-day Soundtrack of America event curated by Quincy Jones and director Steve McQueen in 2019. The following year, Flemons was selected for the United States Artists Fellowship Award for the Traditional Arts category, which was generously supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Also in 2020, he reissued Prospect Hill: The American Songster Omnibus which explores 100 years of American roots music.
Envisioned as a double album, Traveling Wildfire feels like a joyful awakening from a familiar, dreamlike state. To open the album, Flemons chose one of his older songs, “Slow Dance With You,” an elegant country waltz enhanced by Matt Pynn on pedal steel and drummer David Hidalgo Jr. (Social Distortion, Los Lobos). The album then glides into “Dark Beauty,” a sensuous ode to his wife, Vania, before shifting into the honky-tonk heartbreak song, “If You Truly Love Me.”
With over a million miles worth of traveling in his background for the past twenty years, the project places Flemons’ own experiences at the forefront, notably on the atmospheric “Traveling Wildfire” and “It’s Cold Inside.” The relentless search for a stable life amidst uncertainty became the impetus to write these two songs, which foretell the harsh reality of hitting rock bottom and having to start over while picking up the pieces.
The glimmer of dawn arrives with “We Are Almost Down to the Shore,” a poignant spiritual he learned from a prison recording by Jimmie Strother from the Library of Congress’ Lomax Family Collection. Here, Flemons reimagines it on guitar as a duo vocal with singer Lashon Halley (co-lead singer of Dustbowl Revival). He also puts his own interpretation on “Nobody Wrote It Down,” a cinematic Black genealogy co-written with Billy Branch and Carl Gustafson a few years ago for a project named MOJA. The explosive futuristic Western soundtrack frames the fictitious saga of a runaway slave-turned-Pony Express rider whose descendants would become a Buffalo Soldier, a cowboy and a Pullman Porter. While stories like these have been passed down from generation to generation, the song is meant to acknowledge the important role of family legacy as a tool of survival.
Next, an intriguing rendition of Rev. Gary Davis’ “Saddle It Around,” performed in the vein of Mississippi John Hurt, showcases Flemons’ beloved Fraulini Angelina guitar as well as trusty “Big Head Joe”, a giant 100-year-old six-string banjo. Among the 15 instruments he plays on this album, his arsenal includes a Hofner electric guitar, a Fender Telecaster, a five-string Sankofa gourd banjo and a four-string Deering Sierra Plectrum banjo. The beat of a marching bass drum, also played by Flemons, provides a metronomic effect throughout the project.
Following four more original compositions, he turns to the work of Eric Andersen (“Song to JCB”) and Bob Dylan (“Guess I’m Doing Fine”). Those songwriters issued music on Folkways early in their careers, making their inclusion on this project especially fitting. In addition, Sam Bush adds his distinctive fiddle on the latter track, while the Pogues’ James Fearnley plays piano accordion on the album’s closing instrumental, “Songster Revival.”
Asked what he hopes his audience will hear in Traveling Wildfire, Flemons replies, “I hope people will be able to hear the different phases of my life through the lyrics and feel the energy that fuels my creativity within the songs. The past few years for me have been a time of deep reflection and meditation. I hope that the album will light a fire of inspiration inside everyone who experiences it.”