Dom Flemons, a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, left the band at the end of last year, leaving fans full of question marks as to why he'd ever leave the Grammy Award-winning group. The Drops have been an important in bringing historical traditions in African-American music back to the forefront of the music world. But Flemons simply wanted to get back to his own roots, and he's done just that with new solo album Prospect Hill.
"What I wanted to do was record an album where I was both continuing the work I did in that group, and continuing my own personal research into the oldest styles of American music," says Flemons. "I wanted to show off my individual talents as a songwriter, producer, and arranger, and I wanted to do it in a way that would appeal to fans of my previous work, but obviously I want to make sure people understand there's a different repertoire that I do when I'm playing as a solo performer."
Due out July 22, Prospect Hill is Flemons' third solo record. On it, he shows his skills on the four-string banjo, guitar, harmonica, jug, and bones (yep, animal bones), but Flemons also gets back in touch with his long-time passion of songwriting.
"I started out writing all my own songs at first for about four or five years, and I did performance poetry for a while, so I learned different ways to write," he says. "I also got a degree in English, so I have a lot of experience with writing, but I didn't focus particularly on songwriting for about 10 years in most of my time with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. And so when I came into doing this record, I just grabbed some of my old notebooks of songs that I had written that I just had never put out there."
And once Flemons got back into the flow of writing songs, the only thing he tried to focus on was meeting or exceeding his own admittedly high standards, rather than trying to worry about anybody else's.
"People get caught up in the hang-up about how the music they perform on stage has to be reflective of every aspect of their fandom, but I've learned to turn that off," Flemons says. "It's just a mental head trip I've learned to get out of because when I'm writing a song, I try to write a song that is easy for people to understand and that other people might be interested in learning. I try to be very strict with myself to think, 'Well, what would I as a fan enjoy?' I've got pretty high standards. I'm very exacting."
Such high standards have much to do with the fact that Flemons is a veritable encyclopedia of musical knowledge. He has done a lot of research into the history of American music, and all of that digging has led him to write songs inspired by the purer and simpler sounds of yesteryear. His digs have also given some of his songs deeper-than-expected connections to the past. For example, when noted blues musician Guy Davis came in to guest on the album, it sparked an idea in Flemons that he simply could not shake.
"He's one of the few guys that does that Sonny Terry style of harmonica," says Flemons, "and a lot of people don't know that Sonny Terry had a nephew named J.C. Buriss, who played the bones and harmonica, and the two of them played together. I'm one of the few guys who plays bones who knows who J.C. Buriss is, so I wanted Guy to do something that would reflect that very powerful style of music: just harmonica and bones." He adds, "Little statements like that, musically, can tell a very big story, so I tried to do that with this record."
However, Flemons also credits leaving the Carolina Chocolate Drops for allowing him to make a more dynamic disc. From the opening notes of the ragtime-tinged track "Till the Seas Run Dry," it's clear that Flemons is spot-on in his assessment of how he wants the album to sound; it is steeped in the same sense of musical history and tradition as the Carolina Chocolate Drops' work, but it's anything but a rehash of those works. "But They Got It Fixed Right On" is an almost entirely banjo-led ditty that is ripe for dancing to, while the countrified acoustic rock track "Have I Stayed Away Too Long?" swings like classic Elvis Presley. Musically, there is a lot of variety for listeners to dive into — though Flemons may tell you something different.
"I was kind of conservative on this one — I didn't go as crazy as I would have liked to on some of the songs — but I figured any other ideas I have I can just throw on the next record," Flemons says. "This is just the beginning for me. I feel like there are so many ideas I want to put out there."