Dom Flemons On the Path From His First Gig to Winning a Grammy

December 3, 2014

Tell us about your tour vehicle.

My main mode of transportation is a Ford E350. It’s a 15-passenger van. We use a 5×8 cargo trailer on the back for suitcases and bigger equipment.

I bought the van earlier this year.  It has 66,066 miles at the moment I write this.  I’ve already had to replace the front passenger door lock after someone “jimmied” it in St. Louis.  No other major issues yet but we’ll get there soon enough.

I ride with my tour manager, Jon Bumgarner, drummer Dante Pope and bassist Brian Farrow.  Jon and I usually ride in front and the guys get a bench seat apiece leaving one extra one for random storage. Our instruments are set in the back storage area.

Most of time we’re just hanging out and listening to music and chatting about stuff. It’s important to have a nice work environment and the van is where the group spends most its time. It’s a very easy going aesthetic.

How do you eat cheaply and/or healthy while on tour?

We do the best we can. Grocery stores are usually the best bet because you can control what we buy. That is generally cheaper as well.

Any other time I try to be open to what’s available. I use moderation and make sure I have a couple of really hearty meals a week.

How many strings do you break in a typical year? How much does it cost to replace them?

I’m breaking strings all the time. I’d say I go through 35 packs a year. I play hard.  I usually buy 10 packs of strings at a time and those go for $35 or $40.

I also replace all of the strings when I change strings. When I replace one string I find the other strings are usually worn and break anyway.

Harmonicas are my most expensive items. They go from $40-50 based on the brand. I also play in keys like Eb and Bb and there are not cheap models readily available so I buy them when I see them.

Where do you rehearse?

Rehearsal space? Since my stage set up with my group is pretty small we can set up anywhere. The bass is the biggest instrument we have. The drums are a small jazz kit (snare, cymbal stack) and a marching bass drum.

We set up in hotels, out on the street, wherever to get the ideas together and then we put it on stage.

Every once in a while we’ll rent a studio space. That’s usually just to test out the ‘stage’ sound so that we can dial that sound in.

What was the title and a sample lyric from the first song that you wrote?

I can’t remember the first song I wrote. I can tell you the earliest one that comes to mind. It was called “Past Thoughts On Highway Love.” Poetry of a 16-year-old…how lovely… but I still remember it. Haha!

When riding down the highway

I met a poet on the road

She seemed a bit uneasy

As she was looking to relieve

the load on her mind,

She was to write a prose,

She held up a small and timid rose,

I took a smell because she did impose

Left with a feeling I could not deny

One order of trouble and a cup of love on the side.

Describe your first gig.

My first gig was at a place called the Willow House in Phoenix, AZ. It was a hippie poetry coffeehouse that was also the place where the old biker gangs would go for AA. It also had an older punk crowd. There were Servo-Croatian refugees and there was a big lesbian demographic.

It makes me glad to see the same sex marriage bans lifted in AZ. It’s a very conservative state and the Willow House was a place where folks would meet up. I gained a great deal of respect for the LGBT community through my times at the Willow House as a musician and as a slam poet. Overall, the Willow House was an extremely diverse place to start gigging.

I went to the Willow House to see a folksinger named Gavin Weiser. I had seen Gavin at a weekly folk night that happened down the street from my house and I liked the way he played. He was a bassist in a band, as well, so when he played acoustic guitar he used his fingers. As I started learning guitar, I tried to use a pick but it just ended up in the sound hole. When I saw Gavin I decided to strum with my fingers.

I loved the atmosphere of the Willow House and made it my hangout spot from junior year of high school all the way through college. I went to the open mic at the Willow House a few months and I was selling a cassette tape of my own compositions for $5.

When I inquired about a gig, I was told I needed to talk to a sweet and burly woman by the name of Julia. I told her I wanted to play a gig and she wrote my name on the calendar. $25 dollar for a 3 hr gig (7-10pm) and all the Minute Maid soda I could drink plus tips. Wasn’t much a coffee drinker back then. I tried out new songs and did impressions of different performers I liked all night. Some nights I was good. Other nights I’d rather not say… but at that point I was only searching. Plus I was in school. Education was the most important thing as far I knew at that time in my life.

It was a great place to play and I have many fond memories of those days.

What was your last day job? What was your favorite day job?

I’ve always done odd jobs. My favorite job was probably doing delivery for Jason’s Deli.

How has your music-related income changed over the past 5-10 years?

Well, since my humble beginnings of just playing music as a hobby, I now live on my music as a profession and I have a small staff. It’s just a whole other thing. It’s different to play your music as a living compared to a sideline to your normal job. You have to approach going out and gigging like a job without getting tripped up by it. So many people get caught up thinking it’s not cool to have music as a job but I love it. I get to take music, which is my passion, and apply it in a real world way. I also do everything I can to put the word out about old-time folk music everywhere I can. I produce, I promote and I am always researching for new material.

What do you expect your music-related income to look like 5-10 years from now?

I hope for growth. Better gigs and venues, new musicians to work with. I am also excited to see where I go from here. I’m just getting started!

That’s all you want to do in the end. Maintain what I have and expand from there. I never knew I’d win a Grammy, but I did.

I’d like to keep making records. I feel that is the only way to make a lasting legacy as a performer. You need a catalog. I’m working on that everyday.

What one thing do you know now that you had wished you knew when you started your career in music?

I can truly say that each lesson came at the time I needed it. I have been very fortunate to have the opportunities to move my career forward and the greatest part is that it is still only the beginning.

Dom Flemons is the “American Songster,” pulling from traditions of old-time folk music to create new sounds. Having performed music professionally since 2005, he has played live for over one million people just within the past three years. As part of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, which he co-founded with Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson, he has played at a variety of festivals spanning from the Newport Folk Festival to Bonnaroo, in addition to renowned venues such as the Grand Ole Opry.

Flemon’s latest release is Prospect Hill.  You can find him online and on the road.