Dom Flemons holds a beer on the patio outside a Hillsborough bar, but he's too excited to take a drink. Each time the songwriter and multi-instrumentalist lifts his glass, another thought about a song on his new album, Prospect Hill, preempts the sip. He puts his beer back down.
"I feel, generally, records are so long, and they really require you to sit there and listen to every nuance," Flemons says, corroborating the attention deficit on display. "Sometimes it's nice to put a record on and just not pay attention. I tried to make it really easygoing."
Flemons wants you to have a good time hearing Prospect Hill. At just less than 40 minutes, its 14 tracks move from a trot to a gallop. Whether it's a classic string band cut or an early rock 'n' roll number, or one of his seven genre-bending originals, Flemons gets in, gives you the essence of the song, and gets out. Quick solos come in service of the tunes, not the soloists. Instrumentals offer a single serving of a hot groove. It's like flipping through radio stations on a road trip, or catching a band's first set and then moving on to further evening adventures at the break.
"I was thinking about my roots," Flemons says. "The Beatles made really fast albums. I also have a record of a guy named Blind Blake, who recorded in the 1950s, not the 1920s ragtime player. 10 songs, 20 minutes long: I listen to the record twice every time I play it. If all the stuff sounds good, you can listen to it twice before you really sit down and think about what you're hearing."
Don't be fooled by Flemons' casual air: His nonchalance is calculated, deduced from a lifetime of hunching over a record player, listening hard, noticing the decisive points in a song and marking where and why his attention flagged. In 2005, at the now-fabled Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, N.C., he met Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson, the fortuitous moment that launched the Carolina Chocolate Drops. He recorded several albums with the group, including the Grammy-winning Genuine Negro Jig. Flemons left the renowned old-time string band in December to make a run at a solo career. On Prospect Hill, you hear the rigor of his Drops years through the archival ears of a musician who brings songs from a bygone era back to life, who cut a scholarly album that still moves.
Prospect Hill covers some of the same string-band and front-porch ground as the Drops. But Flemons flashes a wider geographical and chronological range. His "San Francisco Baby" could have been penned for the Grand Ole Opry. During "Grotto Beat," he compresses more than a century of musical history into a few minutes, teasing the funk out of fife-and-drum music. Plucked from a Native American fiddle record that he checked out of the Phoenix Public Library before the Drops existed, "Sonoran Church Two Step" reaches far west to Flemons' Arizona childhood. They're all exacting, quick hits. No one will click through this album.
"I thought, 'When I do this record, how about I just reach out to every community that I know?'" he says. "The blues community, the rock community, the old-time music and bluegrass community, the old-time jazz community, the folk community: I have a foothold in all of these."
For all its styles and eras, Prospect Hill is thematically coherent, building a story track-by-track above a foundation of the blues. During the first four tracks, Flemons bemoans lovers who treat him like a fool, leading to Guy Davis' shocks of amplified harmonica on the instrumental "Georgia Drumbeat."
At the album's center, "I Can't Do It Anymore" offers early R&B of the Carl Perkins order. Flemons belts the lyrics at first, but as if he's given in to his heartache, he hollers a chorus that consists only of "Oh baby" and the song's title. It's as if he's hiding the difficult truth. Flemons pared the song from a story to a shrug.
"I had about three or four more verses of that song," he explains, "but I decided to cut them out because I realized that the verse 'I'm going down, down to the bar/Hands in my pockets so they don't make it to your jaw' was kinda like Johnny Cash's 'I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.' That's a great line, and I don't want to tell any more story."
For the rest of the album, the blues lift you above sorrows rather than drown you in them. There are hokum songs, for instance, like his own "Hot Chicken," ostensibly about an east Nashville chicken shack that fries birds in a cayenne-infused butter batter. But the ultimate gesture of blues-as-consolation comes with "Grotto Beat," a rousing fife-and-drum scamper. Davis triumphantly hollers the lyric "Dom Flemons is marching backwards up the mountain!"
Only hours before the jam session that birthed the track, Davis left the bedside of his old friend and folk icon Pete Seeger, who died a few hours later. They started recording the next day.
"It was at the forefront of our minds," Flemons admits.
Though "Grotto Beat" was intended as an instrumental, Davis decided it needed lyrics. During a short jam in Flemons' kitchen, the words poured out.
"I had 'I'm going backwards up the mountain.' I don't ever try to be political with things, but you do everything they tell you at the office, and you still get screwed," Flemons offers. "So sometimes you gotta go backward up the mountain to get up there."
It's an apt summation of the leap of faith that Flemons has taken by leaving a known, successful act like the Carolina Chocolate Drops for the uncertainty of a solo career. But he's confident.
"There's a new audience out there that the music industry just does not see," Flemons says. "That's part of why I'm going backwards up the mountain. There are enough people who are dissatisfied. Everybody's been doing what they were told, doing the American dream, and the American dream is sometimes really kicking some people in the face. So the need for an alternative is there. That's the kind of stuff I've been doing my whole career—being outside of the main box, you know?"
After closing the tab, Flemons lingers in the bar's gravel parking lot, leaning on the side of his van, reaching through the open driver's-side window to play a few select tracks. Harry Dean Stanton crackles out "Blue Bayou." Neil Young rambles a monologue for his mother on a CD he made with Jack White.
A train rumbles by. Radar gun poised, a cop lurks in the shadow behind a streetlamp's pool of light. Dark, swollen clouds hold the July sky hostage. It's a night ripe for a song, and Flemons might just write it.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Backwards up the mountain"