Dom Flemons “Traveling Wildfire”

Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2023

Subtle variations on solo album from Carolina Chocolate Drops co-founder.

Dom Flemons Traveling Wildfire cover artHaving recorded four albums with Grammy award-winning trio The Carolina Chocolate Drops, ‘Traveling Wildfire’ is the fifth solo effort by Dom Flemons. His much-lauded role as a scholar and musicologist, along with the fact that this is released on the Smithsonian label, would indicate that we are likely to be in for a trip down the ancient highways and byways of American roots music. However, Flemons was determined to use more of his own songs on this record, stating ”I wanted to give people a different view of my songwriting…I didn’t let myself be limited by (old-time material)”. 

This is immediately obvious on the opening tracks of the record, which although still quite sparse in their instrumentation, are built around a rich tremolo guitar sound, with pedal steel guitar also weaving around the mix. The first three songs especially have a 1950’s and 60’s classic country sound, lush ballads with overtly romantic, sentimental lyrics, typified by opening waltz and single “Slow Dance With You”. 

Following this gentle opening, the mood deepens and darkens with two longer, minor key songs, in the title track and ‘It’s Cold Inside’, both of which have a kind of Leonard Cohen intensity to the music. 

Then, and quite suddenly, both the mood and the music of the record as a whole changes, and we find ourselves back in the old-time scene for which Flemons is perhaps most known. The album falls into a regular rhythm of old-time songs, and originals and covers that sound like old songs. Acoustic instrumentation prevails, with very fine playing by Flemons and guests like Sam Bush and the Pogues’ James Fearnley.  If it is more what we might expect from Flemons, there is certainly plenty to enjoy, with subtle variations from blues to country to folk, and some nice rag-time guitar thrown in for good measure. 

A highlight is the rather wonderfully imaginative story-telling of ‘Nobody Wrote It Down’, which gives a context as to why a lot of the history of black people is forgotten and overlooked, at least in the western world. It is a powerful piece, simultaneously straightforward and multi-layered, with a musical background that echoes this. 

So, as a whole, this is an album of two parts; if the opening tracks take a while to gel, fans could metaphorically drop the needle at track 6, the spiritual ‘We Are Almost Down To The Shore’, and let Flemons mastery and joy in the old flavours cast a spell which lasts for the rest of the record. 

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