Dom Flemons' 'Traveling Wildfire' explores next-generation of Black life in America
We're at a point in Dom Flemons' two-decade-long musical career where it is apropos to refer to him as a peerless creative who is fundamentally linked to the core expression of American history.
On Friday, the 40-year-old Grammy-winning multi-instrumentalist is releasing "Traveling Wildfire," his seventh studio album in 16 years and second for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
"Emerging from the pandemic, people demanded to hear me play classic country music from the African American perspective," says Flemons, in an interview with The Tennessean.
Since his days alongside Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson as a founding member of Black banjo and string band revivalists the Carolina Chocolate Drops — famed for albums like 2010 Grammy-winner "Genuine Negro Jig" — Flemons has been both a forefather and preservationist of the Afro-Caribbean blues, country, folk and jazz inspirations on American music.
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With his 2018 album "Black Cowboys" he realized, as he noted in a 2019 interview: "If you empower yourself by being a black cowboy, you have broken yourself out of the bounds of the past, the things that define you culturally. So the cowboy is just out there, doing whatever they want to do."
Five years later, "Traveling Wildfire" finds Flemons boundless, empowered and searching through two decades of his material to discover and interpret what "an artful journey through survival, rebirth, and love unlike anything I've ever done before" can represent.
He name-drops time spent working with Tyler Childers on his thoughtful 2020 release "Long Violent History," inspired by Black Lives Matter protests, on which he plays banjo, bass drum, bones, harmonica, jug and quills, inspiring as well an "old-timey country" feel.
"Traveling Wildfire" opener "Slow Dance" is one of three traditional, waltz-time, country love songs on the album. There's also "Dark Beauty," dedicated to his wife of seven years, Vania Kinard, and "If You Truly Love Me," not far removed from the 1940s-era Hank Williams playbook.
The "imagery" associated with Black country's revival and modern-era progression is of utmost importance to Flemons in his latest.
His work is guided by the power of Black love, the sounds of his beloved gourd banjo and marching bass drum, and navigating metaphorical storms of self-actualization and self-doubt.
In a February interview, Flemons said the love Black people share for each other not only encapsulates romance, but also "defines the smiles hidden behind the sadness of racial oppression." It allows for the greater definition of one's "heritage, self-worth and future dreams."
The ability of multiple levels of intentionality at play to shine on "Traveling Wildfire" is one of the album's most significant victories.
The album's title track emerged while he was in a flooded hotel while traveling to 2021's Bonnaroo Festival. Meanwhile, Southern California was engulfed in a series of wildfires.
The song emerges as a bass drum and dark-chord guitar-licked "apocalyptic impressionistic painting" of a track where the notion of the wildfire "sprawling like an endless gravel road" imparts creeping anxiety on the listener.
It's coupled with "It's Cold Inside" ("originally written during a low period, but now representative of broader struggles"), "Saddle It Around," (a shuffling dance track originally from blind, '60s-era, banjo-playing blues and gospel vocalist Reverend Gary Davis) and "Nobody Wrote It Down" ("a 'Django Unchained,' cinematic-style reflection on the Black western tradition")
Of the latter, Flemons highlights how much he enjoyed crafting the track alongside producer Carl Gustafson and blues artist Billy Branch on 2022's "Project MOJA," which highlighted seven decades of African-influenced music compiled by 500 artists working on 75 tracks.
"Studying the genealogy of Black migration and movement — from slavery to the Buffalo Soldiers, Pony Express riders, cowboys and Pullman porters on trains — is ambitious, and including a Höfner bass guitar (used most famously by the Beatles' Paul McCartney) is a subtle, poignant nod to the present and future, too."
Also, his choice to cover Bob Dylan's 1964 demo "Guess I'm Doing Fine" for the album is a standout.
Flemons highlights working with fiddle player Sam Bush and bluegrass, folk and rock producer Ted Hutt on the track, which he received clearance to cover directly from Dylan himself.
It's profound work to seamlessly navigate folk and jug band influences around lyrics apropos to post-2020-protest-era Black America. When viewed through a Black cultural lens, they impact society in a manner most dire.
"I been kicked and whipped and trampled on / I been shot at just like you / But as long as the world keeps a-turning / I just keep a-turnin' too / Hey, hey, so I guess I'm doing fine," Flemons sings.
"Within the context of an entire society engaged in activism, it's important to observe how personal struggles, alongside those broader struggles, make us all more introspective, too," he says.
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Asked to summarize his latest album's broadest impact as a next-generation Black American survival record signifying success and next steps, Flemons — who received his doctorate in 2022 from Northern Arizona University — offers, as expected, an intelligent, reasoned response:
"Juxtapositions of sounds create wonderful layers of earnest and whole-hearted emotions that allow traditions to recontextualize themselves as compelling, valuable inspiration."
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Grammy-winning folk artist Dom Flemons releases 'Traveling Wildfire'