Dom Flemons, known as the American Songster, plays old-time music from many traditions on a variety of instruments including banjo, bones, jug, and harmonica. He performs songs from his fourth album, Black Cowboys (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings), at Gig Performance Space on Sunday, Sept. 16. In telling the story of how he came to record Black Cowboys, Flemons happily took the scenic route.
His grandfather followed sawmill work from Texas to Flagstaff, Arizona. He was also a preacher with the Church of God and Christ, and in the early 1950s he established a church in Holbrook, Arizona. Flemons, who was a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and now has a solo music career, grew up in Phoenix. “My ethnicity is half-black and half-Mexican. I’m a fifth-generation Phoenix native on my mom’s side,” he said.
His mother, who comes from a copper-mining family, was a flamenco dancer who played the castanets — which he considers similar to playing the bones, a percussive folk instrument made from the ribs or leg bones of a cow. His only formal music training was as a drummer in his school’s marching band; he is otherwise self-taught. His father was a fan of cowboy music, so as a kid Flemons listened to people like Marty Robbins, Willie Nelson, and the singing cowboys of Riders in the Sky. “That’s one part of it. Of course, being African American and growing up in the Southwest, [black cowboys] were something I knew were a fact. But it’s a two-part story, and the second half comes from when I was driving back out west from North Carolina, where I was living at the time.”