I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Dom Flemons of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. The band is releasing their new album, Leaving Eden, this week via Nonesuch Records. As you will read, Dom was extremely dedicated to this project, and he clearly devoted a lot of careful time to this interview. I hope that you enjoy reading this as much as I am sharing it with you.
Hi Dom. Thanks so much for taking the time to participate in this interview. Before we dig into your experiences in the Carolina Chocolate Drops, I'd like to ask you if you could discuss how you began playing, learning, and seriously pursuing music?
First, what were some of your earliest experiences listening to music?
Dom Flemons: For me, I started out playing music that would link to what we are doing now when I was about 16 years old. Before then, I had heard music growing up with my parents listening and singing with the radio. They listened to a lot of smooth jazz, Motown, James Brown. My Dad also listened to a lot of Charlie Daniels, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Booker T and the MGs. Also, my grandparents on each side had their particular tastes.
My mom's parents were going out to the clubs and stuff all the time and were very much hip to partying and listening to music. They passed me lots of different types of music. A lot of jazz. My Nana, when she had heard I was learning the harmonica, passed me a cassette tape of Toots Thielmans. My dad's parents are very religious people and sang a lot of church music.
My grandfather was a preacher in Northern Arizona and had a church in Holbrook and Winslow as well as his church in Flagstaff. These are things that became interesting to me after I had left Phoenix. I realized I had a very diverse childhood with a lot of different experiences that shaped my openness to many different types of music.
How and when did you begin playing music more seriously?
Dom: When I was about 16, my good friend Jason had this guitar in his house. At this point, I had become interested in poetry and had written songs with no music just voice. I got to fooling around with the guitar, and it turned me on to a whole new idea of how to approach music. I had heard music on the radio and I had played music in the school band, but this had been the first time I had realized that as a singular person, I could make music with my own accompaniment.
Around this time, I had really gotten into this documentary The History of Rock 'N' Roll, which had played on TV. I got into an episode called "Plugging In" which described the transition from the early to late 1960's folk revival in the East Coast, to the Psychedelic Pop movement on the West Coast. I got interested in Bob Dylan and the whole idea of the Folk Music scene in NY.
The segment also included videos of Phil Ochs and Lightnin' Hopkins, as well as footage from the Newport Folk Festival filmed by Murray Lerner (who I would end up working with later on). The other episodes included music by Muddy Waters, Louis Jordan, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and a whole variety of people. So, with my acoustic guitar, I started trying my best to learn all the songs I could and sing them out.
When did you begin performing and how did you start recording on a serious basis?
Dom: I played on street corners, in coffeehouses, at the local folk festivals while constantly scouring the library for more CDs and records that would have another amazing sound that I could place in my memory bank, either for casual use, in conversation, or as a tool to use in a new song.
A few things really shaped how I was doing music by the time the Black Banjo gathering had happened. One thing was my purchasing a four-track recorder. A good friend of mine named Richard Lam had a four-track recorder and showed me how to use the machine and what it had the potential to do. This was the same sort of equipment that people like the Beatles and the Beach Boys had used to create their classic albums.
I was able to record myself and produce my own homemade CDs which gave me a lot freedom to experiment with different sounds, overdubbing, track bouncing, and the whole nine yards. I also got into recording the music by in my local area and producing CDs for them as well. I had produced maybe 30 different CDs (6 of my own) by the time of the Black Banjo Gathering.
A second thing that happened to me was getting involved in slam poetry. I had hit a spot in my songwriting (which I had been doing for about 3 or 4 years) where I was having trouble writing songs. I fortunately ran into a fellow by the name of Nick Fox, who introduced me to the art of competitive poetry reading known as slam. With slam, I was able to first: come up with a new way of writing that didn't require rhyming and also didn't require meter, or any of the constraints that songwriting had, and second: it also got me to perform my pieces without a guitar in front of me.
This was very important because like many musicians I had a tendency to hide behind my guitar when I was singing and performing. It was around this time I was really into Bebop. I was listening to a lot of Charles Mingus, Bird, Diz, and Cannonball Adderley, and I was just taking in all of those sounds. I was never a good enough musician to learn how to play the stuff, but I found it to be great fodder for writing stream-of-consciousness prose and whatnot.
Finally, and probably the biggest thing that happened to me, was that I bought a banjo. I had brought an old girlfriend of mine into the music store to get her a guitar, but then I left with a banjo. My friend JP Beausoleil had let me borrow his banjo over the previous summer and I tinkered with it. He had a five-string banjo with the fifth string ripped out of it so that it only had four long strings. At the time, I wasn't aware that there was a completely separate four-stringed banjo tradition, but nevertheless, I liked the sound and proceeded to tinker with it and make up my own style of banjo which I hadn't realized was all that unique until I actually went to the Black Banjo Gathering.
As you began playing more, what were your biggest sources of inspiration?
Dom: When I first started messing with a guitar, my mom had tapped me on the shoulder and told me about a news segment that she had seen about a folk festival that was happening in our neighborhood. I went down, and that began my folk singing career. When I got home from the weekend, I told me father I wanted to be a folk singer. My dad was funny and responded, "Son, folk singers don't make any money." My parents were always encouraging but education was always first on the list for them.
From that festival I was able to get in touch and play music with a large variety of musicians who sang folk songs. Lon Austin and Bill Burkett were two of my biggest mentors. Lon was the main organizer for the festivals at that time, and also a great philosopher of the folk and hippie mentality. He gave me a lot of tips and always encouraged me to do whatever my heart told me to do.
Bill Burkett is a mandolin player to the highest degree. He plays so beautifully and his main aspirations for music are to play and jam. Jamming was great with Bill, and he always fed me the chords on the fiddle tunes when there was not another guitar player around with hands I could watch.
Playing with these local players and dozens more gave me a foundation as a back-up person. To play lead and to back-up are two different skill settings. Whenever I'd hit a jam, I'd rarely play guitar. I'd usually play harmonica, banjo, or jug. This was how I was able to back-up Rhiannon and Justin when I first started playing with them. Whenever I am playing behind someone, I'm always trying to find what would suit the song best for the leader, and the music itself, and I try to not only back it up, but raise it up a notch.
Those are some amazing great face-to-face learning experiences. Can you talk about some of the recordings you were listening to then?
Dom: I started out with Bob Dylan and the Beatles. At the time, it was before many of these older albums had been reissued, so I'd go down to this record store called Zia in Phoenix and I'd pick up used copies for like $5.99 or so. For a kid of 16, and still not really doing the whole job thing consistently, it gave me a lot of room to buy records and just collect. The act of collecting has always been important to me. I collected comic books and trading cards early on, but music took over that particular obsession early on.
I've also been a history fan as far back as I can remember. I've always liked connecting the dots and saying to myself, "Oh this happened in 1963. Wow! “ and “That's when the X-Men comic started”, as well as “That was when Bob Dylan released The Times They Are A-Changin' and “John F. Kennedy was shot during that same time too!"
That's just the sort of way I think. I never thought much about it till people started asking me questions about folk music and then I said to myself, "Wow! It's amazing that my love of music can help others understand the sort of stuff that I do, which apparently isn't that well known.”
Nevertheless, I started with Dylan and the Beatles and then I followed the bread crumbs left by both of them. The Beatles led me to a mass of older 60's groups and doo-wop and rock 'n' roll artists. Through music, I learned so much about the political and social atmosphere of a time by just listening to many different groups and artists that were involved at the time, even if I didn't like them.
I also got into a habit of listening to albums from front to back, sometimes even if I hated it. It was worth it to me to find that unknown gem of a track that might just suit my fancy. I've found all of track number 11 on albums that are just phenomenal. I went from Bob Dylan to Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison, and Cat Stevens. From the Beatles, I went to The Rolling Stones, The Rascals, The Zombies, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, and Buddy Holly.
It's great to hear how a few artists led you back in musical history. I feel like it's how we all make new discoveries, and with any luck, ultimately find our passion as listeners.
Dom: True. Well, I then began to hit the hard stuff from there. I would hear mentions of folks that influenced each of these other folks and I would then go find an album by them. I'd listen to Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Lightnin' Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt, Dave Van Ronk, Koerner, Ray and Glovers and then hit the Country stuff with Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, Marty Robbins, and Roger Miller.
At the same time, I had heard about Folkways Records so I just started searching those out too. Around this time eBay had started up, so I started looking for Phil Ochs albums because only his first three albums were available on CD then.
As you can see, I'm a madman for records. Everywhere I went I'd look in bargain bins and stuff. This was maybe 5 or 6 years before people my age were getting into records that weren't DJs. So I'd pick up all of Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez's records for like $10 bucks. I wasn’t spending a lot of money, and I was getting educated in like four to five decades worth of music.
I eventually began to burn on slam poetry competitions around 2004. I kept up with the scene and supported the formation of the NorAZ poets which stills goes on today. I had gone to two national poetry slams and when I had had my fill of that, I was also tired of writing. Around this time I had found a website called eMusic.com, and at the time you could steal tons of music from the place. I had an external two-CD burner, and I had it hooked up to my computer so I'd stream the record and then just record it.
eMusic had all of the Yazoo Records releases at the time and I just went hog wild and found a whole new world of music. I found Henry Thomas, Charlie Patton, Jimmie Rodgers, etc. I also really got into Jelly Roll Morton's later "folk" recordings with the Library of Congress and his Commodore records where he was talking about jazz as a combination of folk music and written music, which really blew my mind.
All the while, I was going to college and producing my own CDs and selling them at coffeehouse gigs and doing the local musician thing. I was trying my best to learn all of these songs as I took a fancy to them. Just because you listen to it doesn't mean you need to play it, so I would pick songs that I liked, but I always tried to keep away from the really well known ones. Who needs to cover "Crossroads Blues" by Robert Johnson? Not me, but also with those songs being so popular, you had no room to interpret because everyone wants to hear that stuff EXACTLY the way he played it.
With Henry Thomas or Papa Charlie Jackson, those songs can be played without all the hype. I had also gotten into telling people about the songs I was playing. In 2002, I got to see Dave Van Ronk in concert in Phoenix, which would prove to be his last concert in the area. I was amazed at the way he only performed 12 songs in a 90 minute set. He filled in the time between songs with great anecdotes and stories about the musicians, the history around the songs, and his personal experiences with the writers and performers he had personally met. It was such an eye-opener.
Most people who come and see a performer want a connection with that performer. If I play "Your Baby Ain't Sweet Like Mine" and just say "This is a Papa Charlie Jackson song", that's something an audience can take away with them. If I say "Papa Charlie was the first solo self-accompanied blues singer to make popular records and that he played 6-string banjo" that is even more to take away. Someone may ask, "New Orleans? Really? What's a six-string banjo? What do you mean the first solo self-accompanied blues singer? What did they do before that?" That is months of research for anyone who cares. I always hope folks will research. It is not required, but I like to let them decide if it is of interest to them themselves.
One more significant thing that happened was when I stumbled across the album called Solo: Old Time Country Music by Mike Seeger. Again, I got the album illegally and when I listened to it, it just tore my head open. Later, when I purchased the album I read the notes and the premise that Mike had written, which was something to the effect of "After having played all of these different styles of music over many years, I am now making this record and putting different styles of old-time music together that make sense musically". What a concept!
From that point on, I've tried to use that sentiment on everything I do. If it were possible and in good taste (BIG EMPHASIS ON GOOD TASTE), I try to use different styles of old-time music to elevate the ones I am playing. If I want to play "Pallet on Your Floor" with John Hurt's picking pattern and Blind Willie McTell’s singing style, so be it. These are the sort of things I brought with me when I first went to the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, NC in 2005.
What was most memorable for you you from attending the Black Banjo Gathering?
Dom: When I went to the Black Banjo Gathering, the fervor that went through all of the folks involved was amazing. There were so many different schools of thought in the same room that at times it was very intimidating.
There were two types of folk performer from West Africa, Daniel Jatta from Gambia who was a "folk" musician who played Akonting, and there was Cheick Hamala Diabate from Mali who was a Jali, which is a "court" musician. There were minstrel banjo scholars. Mike Seeger was there. The Ebony Hillbillies, who were the first black string band I had ever met, were also there.
When and how did you meet Joe Thompson?
Dom: I met Joe Thompson during one of the jams there. He had asked me to come over and Bob Carlin let me know. I started trying to play "Dona Got A Ramblin' Mind” with him. He saw me picking and said, "No, boy, we got to clawhammer it. You can't pick it." Unfortunately, I had no idea what that meant. See to clawhammer properly you need a 5th string. Bob looked over and said, "Joe, he doesn't have a 5th string." Joe reached over and felt the top of the neck of my banjo and said, "Where'd that string go?" Ha ha!
The first time I saw Joe and heard him play and sing, I had made a connection which I had unknowingly been fishing for for quite a while. I wasn't really into fiddle music. Old-time as I had heard it from people was pretty boring to me, and I didn't care too much for instrumental music at the time. I liked songs, meaning tunes with words. Most old-time people play the tunes without the words and just play them for a long period of time. Back then, I wasn't quite sure how to make the most out of these single chord or two chord songs without getting bored.
But when I heard Joe and Bob do "Steel Drivin' Man" at the concert that night I was hooked. At the time, I had wondered how people like Leadbelly, Henry Thomas, Peg Leg Howell and the Mississippi Sheiks fit into the scope of black folk music. They generally tended to get placed in the "blues" category but they were obviously doing something different than later musicians like Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson and such.
Also I had heard Big Bill Broonzy doing songs like "Joe Turner" and “Mule Ridin' Blues" and I thought to myself that these seemed related to blues, but what do people call this stuff? At the Gathering and particularly through Joe, I started to understand that there is a music that is at the crossroads where country music, old-time, blues and jazz (by this time I had listened to a lot New Orleans stuff) started to melt away and start becoming one music that served every function of the communities it was born in.
That was what made me want to move to North Carolina in the first place.That and Rhiannon. I met her there at the Gathering and she was a phenomenal talent. I got head over heels for her, and she encouraged me to make the trip so I did (the music worked out thankfully). I graduated from NAU a few weeks later, and then I started to take off on a wild new adventure.
Some new listeners may not be aware that before the Carolina Chocolate Drops, there was the Sankofa Strings. Can you describe the transition from Sankofa Strings to the Carolina Chocolate Drops?
Dom: Sure. One thing that knocked me out when we first started playing out first as Sankofa Strings, and then as the Carolina Chocolate Drops, was that people were ecstatic to see our group and loved the way that we sounded. We got standing ovations from the very first gig and on. As something who had been bumming around playing gigs already, I knew this wasn't normal and I also knew that we had to keep going and see how far we could take it.
At first, our gigs were at various street fairs in Chapel Hill and Greensboro. Rhiannon had connections in the old-time community and we got a leg up from that. She also had web design experience, so that really helped us a lot too. Actually, that was a single thing if anything, that made us a business. We had great word of mouth of course, but folks were tuning into the website at a rapid rate and they wanted to know when we'd have a CD and all of that. We tried our best to keep up the demand that was steadily growing.
We did a the Grassroots Festival in Shakori Hills in 2006, and it was there that I had met Tim Duffy. I had heard of Tim through Music Maker Relief Foundation, which was his company. His CDs were in the Phoenix library and I had heard John Dee Holeman and Algia Mae Hinton. When we met he had been informed about us and he wanted to know if we needed management. I said yes, and we shook hands and decided to meet up to talk business.
A week later, we were signed to the label and they released the album that Justin, Rhiannon, and I had just recorded for a demo, Donna Got A Ramblin' Mind. Tim and Denise Duffy have been great advocates for our music for all of these years and we still work with them as our management. They got us in touch with many of the movers and shakers of the blues community, as well as Taj Mahal, who also has been a great supporter of our music, including giving us a quote on the back our original CD, which helped us get some proper street cred.
One thing that has amazed me since the beginning is the way that people have supported us all the way. Older musicians like Mike Seeger and Taj Mahal have given us the stamp of approval saying, "Here's the baton. Keep it on" and that has really fueled me to keep it on. Also, for me, as a collector and advocate for the music myself, it was a great pleasure to be able to be a part of the group.
Rhiannon and Justin were both young Southerns, talented and educated, that wanted to get the music out there. The rural Southern people, who were our first audience that were interested in our music, was more than enough reason for me to do everything I could to get the music out there as well. I went to my first fiddler's convention in 2006 which was the Mt. Airy Fiddler's Convention. I had been to the relatively small folk festivals out in Arizona, but this was a different thing all together.
We did a CD release out there and folks were very glad to see us. I was approached by a woman who gave me a set of bones. I had seen and tried to play bones at the Black Banjo Gathering. There was an old fellow by the name of Cliff Ervin who played and he showed me, but I couldn't understand it. Nevertheless, this woman showed me what to do and then said, "Please try them. They are part of the tradition". Sad that I never got her name. For someone who changed my life with this gesture, I still think it is a shame I never got her name. I tried and tried to play the bones as best I could, and about 7 or 8 months later, I was really hitting them.
On the topic of tradition, can you discuss specifically how the African-American artists, as well as their own personal histories and traditions in music have influenced your work?
Dom: Well, a few years earlier, before receiving the set of bones, while I was in Phoenix, I had picked up an album called The Minstrel Man From Georgia which was an album of Emmett Miller. I was blown away by his music and I was also intrigued by the idea of blackface minstrelsy. Up to that point, all I had ever heard was that Blackface minstrelsy was BAD BAD BAD. But I liked the jokes Miller told, and I wasn't about to let a thing like hundreds of years of racism following hundreds of years of oppression stop me from digging into this fantastic performer's craft.
I had also picked up an album from New World Records called The Early Minstrel Show which featured 19th century minstrel songs and tunes performed by Bob Winans on banjo and several others. The fiddle, banjo, tambourine and bones combination blew my mind. Again, this was before I had a real concept about how the South and North handled these issues of race and politics (in the Southwest the big struggle is Whites vs. Mexicans, which is an equally baffling socio-political affair) and I wanted to attack this music with all the gusto I attacked every type of music.
Also, for all of the BAD BAD BAD talk of minstrelsy, I noticed that black did it just as much as whites. There were racial stereotypes that black perpetuated just as much as white people and I wanted to figure out what the deal was with that because the more I looked into it the less "White men making fun of blacks" stood up as the definitive statement for minstrelsy. I found out that minstrelsy meant different things in the mid-19th century, early 20-century and then after the Civil Right Movement of the 60's.
When I saw the film Bamboozled, I understood what Spike Lee was going for, but I felt that none of the actual musical landscape of minstrelsy was represented which made the whole purpose of the film fall flat. How can you make a movie about minstrels and not really have minstrel songs be a piece of it.
When I saw Ken Burns' documentary Jazz, there is a section talking about the song, "Jump Jim Crow" but I found myself scratching my head at there being no explanation about the fiddle, banjos and mandolin in all of the early band picture in the film and them after the statement "Minstrelsy then became the most popular form of entertainment for the next 100 years". I began to wonder how can this issue be approached with respect for both sides but not shielding them either. The bones helped me take that journey a little farther.
How did all of these historical sources influence the Carolina Chocolate Drops and funnel into the band's work?
Dom: When Bob Winans (who spearheaded The Early Minstrel Show) and Greg Adams approached us with the song Genuine Negro Jig, it was such a revelation. A black family who lived near Dan Emmett, founder of the Virginia Minstrels, may have given him this tune. What a thought! The tune itself was impressive but the story behind it was an even more impressive when placed together with the tune.
We started playing this song and people didn't know what to think. When I play the bones I let the energy of the song or tune drive me. I let the unconscious of the tune speak. This song brought out some of my most adventurous bones playing and people loved it. It got me thinking about why does this music cut the core of people? I just play it and let it fly, but people were taking something wholly different away from it.
This is the reason I got into this business. To create awareness. "Snowden's Jig" as we called it, became a calling card as much as our original statement of "the banjo is an African-derived instrument" and "Black people have as much of a claim on old-time music as anyone else" just by the sound of the fiddle, the bones and the stomp.
On the other end of the spectrum, we had "Hit 'Em Up Style". What an interesting mixture of old-time and a new "old-time" asthetic that we put together that gave people who didn't know anything about the music a reason to want to know. Rhiannon had presented the tune to Justin and I in 2007 after she had the idea to re-do it.
I thought it was an interesting choice but wasn't sure how it would work, but we gave it the old college try and it stuck. She started the fiddle and I came up with a banjo riff that was part "Leaving Trunk" by Taj Mahal, Cakewalk rhythm, and just plain rock groove ala The Who or Zeppelin, or what have you. This has been the biggest crossover number that we've done so far I believe, and I'm not exactly sure why it worked, but it did.
How did you hook up with Nonesuch Records?
Dom: When we met up with David Bither at Nonesuch Records it was an honor first to meet him and then another honor to be signed to the label. Pretty much after Dona Got A Ramblin' Mind, the group was still steadily rising and Tim Duffy let me know that Music Maker couldn't support us to the degree we needed to get to the next level. That was when we put out the feelers for an additional manager who came in the form of Dolphus Ramseur, who has just kicked ass since we started working with him, and also for the label, who would know what to do with us.
We needed a label that could also support the eclectic nature of our group and wouldn't ask us to produce "hit" songs or anything like that. David and the folks at Nonesuch have been nothing but brilliant in their way of being hands-off, but also being very strict on what will make a good album. Again, I didn't say "hit" album. They are a very artistically-based label and selling hits is not their game. They have the prestige and the ethos that people go fro their records because they are great artistic statements.
David hooked us up with Joe Henry, who's own work I had heard of but when he mentioned the albums he had produced, I knew we had our man. He said he had produced Don't Give Up On Me by Solomon Burke and I said, "This is our guy!" He also said he could get the album recorded in 9 days which we did since we didn't really have the time to be working on an album for a long time. Joe Henry was great. At that point, our material was more or less chosen and all we had to do was play it. Joe did a wonderful job with our record and it has gotten lots of acclaim which is great.
There are many different experiences that have honored the group, but again, the things that stick out to me are the ways that people have supported us through and through. This includes the Grand Ole Opry, which is a big story in itself, and all of the NPR affiliates including Praire Home Companion, and Denzel Washington, and, well, the list just goes on and on.
Can you discuss your experiences coming off of the success of Genuine Negro Jig?
Dom: The first thing that had happened after Genuine Negro Jig was that we had to tour. A LOT. And we did tons of press, which was all for the good of the band. We had built up a good following around Dona Got A Ramblin' Mind but Genuine Negro Jig just took it to a whole other level. The road was also really getting to Justin. It became clear that he didn't want to be there after a certain point. The road life is tough and if you don't want to be there, its even worse.
So as we looked for new producer for the next record, Justin began making his way out of the group. We had a meeting with Buddy Miller in Nashville and decided he would be a good fit for the next record. A few months after that, Justin sent in his letter of resignation. The weird thing was it has always been the three of us, so it was a major mental shift to have to pick up the pieces and start over again, AND to make a good record once we were back at it with a completely new group.
Maybe a few weeks after Justin had decided to leave the group, we got the announcement that we had been nominated for a Grammy. We were all sort of shell-shocked. It was a time of celebration but at the same time, it was a bitter taste. Not so much that the music had suffered, but because Rhiannon and I were left wondering what do we do next. We not only had the new upcoming album to worry about, but we also had to reform a touring group and we also had to finish a vaudeville show that we were going to be producing in Chicago, which we finally decided to call “Keep A Song In Your Soul”.
So we had the holidays off and then jumped right into it. We started the year off with rehearsals and then hit the road. When we hit the Grammys in February, it was another shock to be there and to then actually win the Grammy. You know, when you work in an obscure musical genre you never expect to win prestige. We had done well with academics and fans of old-time music, but all of the sudden: BOOM! Now we're going up to the podium accepting our award from Esperanza Spaulding and Bobby McFerrin.
Funny thing though, when we reached the red carpet we got zero, and I mean zero, press coverage. It was really the first time we had stepped into the ocean after having been the big fish in a little pond. We were in the bottom rungs and rafters next to the "actual" stars like Janelle Monae and Lady Gaga. Real pop music. It's times like those when you're reminded that traditional folk is not exactly on the regular public's mind.
Don't get me wrong. We have a wonderful fan base, but in the grand scheme of things, it is a very small part of the whole thing, which I don't mind either. I like being able to walk down the street and not be mobbed. It is so much better for the mind that way. I can't imagine what people like Beyonce and Jay-Z or any of those people have to go through just to do their thing.
Can you discuss the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Luminescent Orchesrtii collaboration?
Dom: When the decision was made to make a recording with the Luminescent Orchestrii in April of 2008, it was apparent from the moment we got there that the session was going to be special. The groups had already played a bit together at the Folk Alliance conference earlier in the year and the idea was to get "Hit 'Em Up Style" as well as "Knockin'" recorded.
A second session was done in the fall where we recorded "Short Dressed Gal" and "Escoutas". Sxip and I are very much the mad thinkers in our groups, and both of us agreed that the collaboration should be a way to expand on the folk music that both groups are deeply immersed in. The element that was chosen to weave the groups together was Adam Matta who had worked with Sxip and the Luminescents many times before.
Though Rhiannon and Sxip intital friendship made the session come to fruition, Sxip and I traded philosophies and found common ground on the more abstract levels of what we wanted to accomplish at the session, along with Joe Bass who produced the session. It was a wonderful effort by all and it was very fun to feel the power of both groups working together to create a greater sound that neither group could ever produce by themselves.
Can you briefly discuss the recent developments within the band, specifically following Justin Robinson's departure with the addition of Hubby Jenkins and Adam Matta, and then Leyla McCalla?
Dom: Toward the end of our touring year in 2010, Justin decided that he didn't want to be on the road anymore. The life of a full-time musician that travels to the extent that we do is a hard life and Justin wanted out of that. At the time, I was working on and producing a recording of Hubby Jenkins, who I had known for several years. When Justin decided to leave, we started looking around for other players.
I suggested that we try Hubby out. He ended up being up for the task and we went from there. We met Adam through the Luminescent Orchestrii. Adam was never technically a full-time member. He was a guest artist that we toured with all last year. The touring became too much for Adam as well. and he stepped down toward the end of the summer in 2011. In his place, we have added another guest artist Leyla McCalla, who plays cello. We've decided to keep the group more or less a three-piece and have a guest artist who will be working with us. It has a good feel and is also a way to expand our sound.
What would you say their contributions have added to the band's sound, collaborative spirit, and further development?
Dom: Something that each of our new members have brought is a new perspective to the music that was not there before, which adds more fuel to the fire. With each new piece added, our group can explore different ways in which we can present, as well as promote different pieces of the old-time field. We also can experiment into broader genres without losing what made our group so respected in the first place.
Hubby's addition as another guitarist, banjoist, and bones player, has been very freeing just because there is another pair of hands that can handle those particular parts of the group. Adam made way for interesting fusion as a beatbox but also as a horn player. Leyla's cello brings a bass sound that is a nice addition to the group.
You are very prolific within Carolina Chocolate Drops, as well as in some of your own additional projects outside of the group. Can you talk about what else you have been working on?
Dom: I've always tried to keep a few things in my pocket. I've worked with the East River String Band out of NYC, and also with Sule Greg Wilson who started Sankofa Strings with Rhiannon and myself. Recently, the two of us worked on a new CD called The Uptown Strut, which features vocalists Allison Russell and Ndidi Onukwulu, as well as John Sebastian.
I have also worked for a few years cataloging the Newport Folk Festival film archive that was shot by Murray Lerner in the early 1960's, and I participated in the PBS documentary Give Me The Banjo, the first definitive documentary on the history of the banjo in America, which featured a ton of great people. I also do a lot of work with the Music Maker Relief Foundation, where I work with their artists, as well as serve as a member of the board.
You also have been working with Boo Hanks?
Dom: In 2006, I was called down to the Music Maker office in Hillsborough to meet weith a new potential artist to work with the label. Boo Hanks entered the room and starting playing his guitar and we were all floored. Ever since then I have kept a close relationship with Boo playing and visiting with him when I can. I usually play harmonica, jug or bones. Sometimes I will play second guitar, but Boo rarely ever needs it since his guitar can cover all of the bases alone.
Where do you find your inspiration, and how does it influence your work?
Dom: I find inspiration everywhere I go. Whenever I play some tunes with people and spend time listening to music, I can usually find something that strikes my fancy. I listen to a lot of music. Whether it is music I will play, or if it’s just something for fun. Somehow, I often find a way to use a piece of it to make my own music.
I would also like to add that just because someone plays a certain of music does not particularly mean that that is all of the music they listen to. I listen to 60's rock, country blues, honky-tonk, jazz, Japanese folk music, Italian polyphonic singing, cowboy songs, Mexican Tejano music, singer-songwriter stuff from the 70's, soul music, doo-wop, you name it. All of these things funnel into my brain and I make sense of it somehow when it comes out.
How would you describe your artistic philosophy?
Dom: My philosophies around making music is to make good music, period. I read a quote one time from Bob Dylan that said in regards to his album Highway 61 Revisted: "Yeah, I like that album. I'd listen to it." That's how I try to hold my music. You'd be surprised at how many people do not do this. So many times, and its not always easy to do, is that people get so caught up in the actual emotional journey or mental process of recording that they do not think of how to listen to their work as critically as something with an unbiased opinion.
I try to remove myself as I'm working and listen with the thought, "If I heard this with no story or explanation, would I like it?" It is a hard thing to do, but the thing to remember is that if you put music out in the world, there are people who can be harsher than you the artist. It is all about making sure your work fills your own expectation of music should be.
Most times if your heart and mind are honest then you should be in good shape. That's the way I've done things since the beginning and it has been a successful strategy. It's a strict formula on the work ethic end, regarding the music, but it does not limit the ACTUAL music itself, so there really is a lot of freedom to mess around.
As someone who looks to the past for inspiration, and combines it with contemporary influences, how would you describe your approach to interpreting music?
Dom: I would say that interpreting music comes down to using common sense. As a collector myself, I find I can be very critical at folks who interpret the old-time styles because I am such a fan of the original music. In doing my own work, when I experiment with an old-time song, I try to remember that the new work must be equal, in essence to the original.
Again, I am not saying it needs to be the same as the original, but whatever is done to the song, it is so important not to lose the essence of the song. I always try to think about why I like a song. If I like the words, then I try to keep the words in the forefront. If the melody or the beat is what I like, then I try to keep the integrity of the original, while still injecting my own ideas of what I would like to hear in the music myself.
Can you talk about when and how the Carolina Chocolate Drops' Songbook came together and what it means to you philosophically and artistically to share the material with other musicians, fans, and enthusiasts?
Dom: That was Rhiannon's idea. She mentioned it and I thought it would be a great idea. She transcribed several of the tunes and we all decided that we should take a little extra effort to make the songbook a souvenir book as well. At that point, our group was reaching its 5 year mark, so we had picked up quite a few photos of us at various times. It really was a wonderful way to be able to show people our group's history, as well as have info on our instruments, and some of the stories that surround our songs. It was a fun project and I am so very pleased that we have it.
The many incarnations and rich history of string band music is far and wide. I'd like to ask you if you can share some of what inspires and drives each of you to share and perform the kinds of music you play?
Dom: For me, I am a collector by nature and I have always enjoyed sharing that with people. When I started doing folk music, I saw it through the examples of other older folk singers like Dave Van Ronk and Pete Seeger. I saw that talking to your audience was a great way to set-up for the next tune, as well as tell them an interesting anecdote about you as a person, or about the tune or song that you'd hope they'd find interesting.
The search for more great music is what drives me. Also, the chance to share that with the world is also my drive. When we started the Chocolate Drops, one thing that drove me for a long time (and this stills drives me today) was presenting Southern music to Southern people with a group that branded itself as a Southern organization. This has changed a little since both Rhiannon and Justin aren't in it, but it is still something that I find to be very important. I believe that just being able to play an old style and to let people know it is a part of them, and who they are, is so important.
There is also the idea of legitimizing string band music and the banjo as a valid part of the black community. It is mostly to get people aware that this is a very BIG part of the development of American music as an art form. In doing that as well, it has been important for me to also mention and address how far we've come as a country since those old days. When we first started, this idea was a very obscure idea, and it has been great to be a part of the people who have made efforts to make this part of our history known. This drives me so much.
Also, when I get to work and meet with my contemporaries, or with musicians and players that have inspired me, that drives me even further too. To hear Mike Seeger say that our group was the closest he saw to the New Lost Ramblers is enough to make me want to do this for the rest of my life. Who wouldn't want to keep digging, delving, and trying to reach a little further than that?
When, how, and why has this form of music become your primary form of artistic expression?
Dom: For me, it was a natural progression backward from the music I was already listening to. I was interested in rock 'n' roll, soul music, old-time jazz, country, and blues. To be able to reach at the past with so much history between our times and those times is a great way to open up a new world of music that, as it has turned out, is as relevant now as it was then.
What would you say continues to keep this music relevant and inspiring to new listeners who may be just discovering the many incarnations of string band music?
Dom: In some ways, the stuff is so old and removed from our modern world that it is refreshing to hear just because it isn't trapped in the corner that so many other types of music are now. Also, the sparseness is a plus. We're so used to hearing a full band all the time with a drum kit and whatnot, that it is refreshing to just hear a fiddle, banjo, and jug play music that can be just as exciting with less volume and sometimes less noise (no distortion sounds with acoustic instruments). I think that's a big thing that has made the music popular.
Also, the material is as good as any classic literature. When someone performs Shakespeare, everyone knows the material is good, but it is all about how the people who perform it elevate it that makes the show. Our type of music works along the same lines.
Plus, with so much of the old music available online, I think its also important that people have the opportunities to see the material performed in a live context. This is the reason you see so many "retro" acts in general. Sure you can listen to Sam Cooke, Chuck Berry, Dock Boggs, and Uncle Dave Macon on record or on video, but there is nothing like being able to see someone who plays in that style in front of your face. I mean it is something that I always wanted to see when I first started out.
Can you discuss the creative process making Leaving Eden?
Dom: The creative process around Leaving Eden really wasn't much different than any of the other albums we've produced. We pick out tunes and songs that we feel strongly about and then began to play them out live. From there, we decide to record it. That's usually the core of the album.
From there, we usually try to find a few pieces that specifically showcase each member of the group, and then we usually find a couple of other pieces that develop in the studio. It has been that formula since the beginning, and in that way, Leaving Eden was not much different than that.
What kind of newness and freshness was injected into the work for Leaving Eden?
Dom: Something that gave Leaving Eden a sense of newness was the fact that the songs on it were new arrangements, with a new group. When we did Genuine Negro Jig, we had been playing those tunes for about 2 years.
When we were in the studio for Genuine Negro Jig, the feeling was "Okay, let's get the tunes that we know are crowd favorites and make a great record," which meant that we did a little bit of experimenting, but for the most part, we came in with a game plan for recording. For Leaving Eden, we only had a small amount of material together beforehand, and then as the session went on, we recorded very new arrangements that had not been performed on stage before.
Can you talk a little about some of the tunes on the new record?
Dom: There's quite a variety of material on the album and it is amazing that we could fit it into a single record. Ha ha! There are tunes like “Riro's House” which was learned from Joe Thompson, who we spent a lot of time with early on. Sadly, Joe passed away on February 20th. “Riro's House” is sort of an Alpha/Omega with “Pretty Little Bird” which was originally done by Hazel Dickens, who passed away last April 22nd, which was between our two main sessions.
There is a medley of minstrel tunes from the Tom Briggs' banjo instructor of 1855, "Briggs' Corn Shucking Jig/ Camptown Hornpipe”. “Mahalla” was a piece I learned from the playing of Hannes Coetzee, which I adapted on the banjo from the guitar. “Read 'Em John” is another piece that I learned from the recordings of the Georgia Sea Island Singers. Also, “Po' Black Sheep” comes from the music of Nathan Frazier and Frank Patterson who were recorded by John Work III, for the Library of Congress.
What would you say Leaving Eden adds to the discography of the Carolina Chocolate Drops?
Dom: It is just another feather in the hat for me. We've literally only scratched the surface of all of this music, and it all just leads me to want to do another album of material which is the same, but varied. It is hopefully going to bring in more people who will hopefully would want to learn more of the music, but if they just enjoy it that is just as good.
What's next for you in 2012?
Dom: More touring. Another album maybe and working with this new ensemble. I am so excited to see where we can go from there!