American Songsters

In the liner notes to his superb, hand-hewn new album Prospect Hill, self-described “American Songster” Dom Flemons proclaims 2014 the Year of the Folksinger. “There are so many elements coming together,” he wrote. “And that hunch, hope, feeling or dream are what guide this album for me. I was not sure if my proclamation would be warranted or just a foolish notion, but when Pete Seeger passed the night before we began recording, I knew that notion was a reality.”

Not long ago our friends at The Bluegrass Situation published a list of young artists who are carrying Seeger’s torch into the new dawn, including Vikesh Kapoor, Willie Watson and Dom Flemons himself. If the unusual name rings part of a bell, Dom was a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, one of the most remarkable stories in folk and roots music of the last decade.

Dom grew up in Phoenix and got deeply involved in folk music there, producing numerous albums by himself and others. But it was a few years later that he focused hard on early blues, jug band and string band music. At a now storied Black Banjo Gathering in North Carolina in 2005, he found common cause with some other musicians and formed a band that would spark an overdue revival of African-American folk traditions. Where for many black Americans there had been baggage attached to the pre War repertoire, the Chocolate Drops heaved it overboard and invited all music fans to listen to an array of songs, instruments (like the old-time banjo, the bones and the kazoo) and guest musicians (such as NC fiddler Joe Thompson). The arresting vocals of Rhiannon Giddens and fresh twists like beat boxing from Adam Matta forged a band that reframed Americana and won a Grammy Award to boot.

In late 2013, the band announced that after eight years, Flemons was moving on to fulfill solo ambitions. He’d released some albums on his own before, but something about Prospect Hill speaks to a new start and a true debut. It’s named for a tiny town in North Carolina that’s a bit suspended in time, with a beautiful 150-year-old general store that acts as sort of a backdrop for the sessions. The album was released by the Music Maker Relief Foundation, that fascinating non-profit that’s championed and supported some of the Deep South’s most authentic artists. Most are far more elderly than Mr. Flemons, but Dom has been a great friend of Music Makers and it seems like a proper fit. As for the music, you’ll hear a wide range of songs written and scouted/scrounged by Dom. I love his ode to Nashville’s “Hot Chicken” and the funky harmonica tune “Georgia Drumbeat” is rural as can be, yet it could be sampled by a hip-hop artist.

It’ll be a great pleasure to welcome Dom to Roots.

To close the show we’ll dance along with Alanna Royale, a band familiar to most Roots fans as the breakout soul stars of East Nashville. With a polished and punchy horn section, smart guitar leadership from Jarod Colby and of course the brassy, commanding Alanna up front, they’re a full-body massage and workout all in one. Sweat is just part of the set. The sextet has at last finished work on a debut full-length album, which will be called Achilles and which will come out Sept. 16. In an American Songwriter preview and single debut on the song “Animal” (long one of our faves), Alanna reveals she’s had a major bout of vocal chord problems that required much recovery and patience. Sounds like that’s behind her and we wish her and the band well as they roll this star-making project out this fall.

Rounding out the bill, two songwriting artists who will be new to me but who are fast becoming familiar to Music City. Ruston Kelly has been in town since 2006 and he’s made laps of the country with his band Elmwood, which opened for major rock acts. As a writer he’s landed a Tim McGraw cut and refined his own voice into songs that are quite penetrating and elegant. He lets the emotion and pathos of classic country into his music without becoming a stylistic anchor. And Elise Davis is an Arkansas native who moved to Nashville in a rush of enthusiasm and hope with her guitar. It seems this was not altogether wrong-headed, in that she won an American Songwriter/Martin Guitar songwriting contest, which set her up with some publishing support. Her EP called Life is rich with melodies and messages that match.

So I’m on board making 2014 the Year of the Folksinger, as long as that holds true for every year thereafter as well.

Craig H.

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