Between tradition and modernity: Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Dom Flemons goes solo

Prolific string player Dom Flemons left behind a successful gig with the Carolina Chocolate Drops to pursue his own musical passions. Photo: Michael Weintrob. Prolific string player Dom Flemons left behind a successful gig with the Carolina Chocolate Drops to pursue his own musical passions. Photo: Michael Weintrob.

Leaving an internationally acclaimed band’s a pretty outlandish move for anyone hoping to make a living as a performer. But that’s what Dom Flemons, a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, did last December. It wasn’t because of some in-fighting, he said over the phone from North Carolina. Instead, Flemons, who plays everything from four- and six-string banjo to guitar and the fife, maintains an erudite and philosophical air about the whole thing. Really, though, it’s just about the songs.

“In doing my new record Prospect Hill, I really wanted to bring my solo material to the forefront. And most people aren’t familiar with any of that material,” Flemons said. “I tried to find a balance of keeping the fans I already have with the Chocolate Drops and also keeping it wide open for people who haven’t heard anything I’ve done before.”

There’s more than a passing similarity between his old band and all the syncopated Americana represented over the course of Flemons’ new disc, the third under his own name. And while Prospect Hill keeps with the Chocolate Drop’s historical jive, Flemons injects a wider range of genre, bounding from early NOLA jazz to ragtime and into some primordial rock ‘n’ roll.

“I wanted to present some new material that I’d written over several years, you know, I just had ’em in my back pocket and I thought they were decent songs,” he said. “I just didn’t feel right about doing them in the Chocolate Drops show, because the material we’d been doing for years, I felt, was more important. It was material that we’d done as a group, instead of me going off and taking over the group.”

Flemons also figures the Chocolate Drops were meant to elucidate a historical respect in a specific kind of music—North Carolina’s pre-war acoustic stuff. And he didn’t want to distract from that goal by attempting to dissolve the genre while a member of the troupe.

Over four albums and about a decade of working together, the Phoenix native and company roiled in the recreation of traditional songs like “Trouble,” a tune folks are as likely to hear on a live recording from Jerry Garcia as during a show by any area bluegrass band. Prospect Hill still offers longtime Chocolate Drops fans a glimpse back into America’s 1920s when indigenous music like blues, folk and jugband stuff refused to sit easily within a single genre. Purposefully set at the end of side one on Flemons’ new album is “Sonoran Church Two Step,” a dance tune led by a twinned fiddle and banjo melody suited to Friday night festivities out in the country. There’s a dash of subtle percussion pushing the whole thing forward, but with the propulsive stringband lineup, it’s almost unneeded. And even if the tune’s an instrumental affair, hearing it without attaching some invented narrative, filled with anthropomorphized farmyard animals talking up some morality tale, presents a hellacious task.

A few tracks on, those animals do appear. Instead of granting answers to life’s omnipresent troubles, “Hot Chicken” just winds up being a paean to the wonders of Nashville’s recently popularized delicacy. A sax solo wends its way through the chorus—a performance Flemons said he wanted to sound like chickens. And differentiating the track further from that earlier dance tune is an electric guitar solo that would have fit onto any Sun Records single from 60 years back.

But splitting the record’s 14 tracks between the traditional and the almost-modern, as well as between covers and original tunes highlights a weird cultural wrinkle for Flemons.

“We’ve taught audiences to be afraid of people who don’t write songs. They’re less invested if they don’t write all the material, and I feel that in that way, music has suffered,” he said. “Instead of professional songwriters writing pop songs—they are, but it’s not like Cole Porter—now songs are becoming hits because they’re bad. You remember ‘Friday?’ It’s all focused on, ‘Where’s the money?’ not, ‘Where’s the talent,’ which is fine, because it’s business.”

Flemons made sure to explain that he’s a songwriter, an interpreter of music, as well as a businessman, adding that he likes coming up with new tunes, but wants to avoid the trap of singer-songwriters who have to croon about their heartache all the time.

He also sees significant power in the folk singer; someone who can collect, edit and dispense a cache of American history that might have been bastardized over time while handed off orally generation to generation.

“I do a version of ‘Stack-O-Lee’ and I compiled the lyrics from four different versions: Dave Van Ronk, Fury Lewis, Mississippi John Hurt, and Frank Hutchinson’s versions,” he said about the old murder ballad. “I compiled the story as I wanted it to be. I wanted to have that whole story in there, because most versions cut it off—they hang Stack-O-Lee. The end. Or he’s in hell. That’s just always been how it’s been in the folk tradition.”

Given the nation’s bulky backlog of tunes like “Stack-O-Lee” and the fact that Flemons, despite not wanting to be a full-time singer-songwriter, has been penning original works for at least 15 years, he’s already pondering what next stylistic statement he can shoehorn onto a follow-up disc while touring on Prospect Hill. And maybe he’ll suss it out from Charlottesville’s musical heritage. ~ Dave Cantor

Thursday 10/19. $10-12, 7:30pm. The Southern Café and Music Hall, 103 S. First St. 977-5590.

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