Prospect Hill – The American Songster Omnibus
You might have a quick reaction to those preemptive words “The American Songster” but, in fact, that’s how Grammy winner time and two-time Emmy winner Dom Flemons is known. One wonders if there’s anything that’s beyond his immense scope of talents. He’s a songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer, actor, music scholar, historian, and record collector. He plays banjo, fife, guitar, harmonica, jug, percussion, and rhythm bones – all instruments that are represented somewhere in this sprawling two-disc set that comes in three parts. It includes the original Prospect Hill album from 2014, the 2015 Record Store Day nine-track EP What Got Over (making its first appearance in CD/digital), and a third section, The Drum Major instinct, 12 previously unissued instrumentals that focus on moods, rhythm experimentation and “the beats.” The last two parts are contained on CD 2.
Flemons, of course, achieved his Grammy win and subsequent high profile gigs with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a string band that also featured acclaimed roots artists Rhiannon Giddens and Leyla McCalla. While that band was known for bridging old-timey music, bluegrass, folk, and blues, this collection extends those genres for Flemons to jazz, country, and even hip-hop. These are songs from the 1920s to the present. Like most Omnivore projects this has a rich package with liner notes from the musician and his wife Vania Kinard and wonderful photography from the renowned Timothy Duffy.
The inside jacket is chock full of information, listing the other musicians that play with Flemons, most notably Guy Davis who plays a variety of instruments. Flemons provides background on each song on that album as well as on the EP. You’ll hear clarinet, fiddles, banjos, upright bass, and instruments you associate with early 20th century American music with familiar titles such as “Polly Put the Kettle On,” “Have I Stayed Away Too Long” (two versions), and “San Francisco Baby,” as examples. The background vocalists are especially inspiring on select tracks of Prospect Hill. Of course, The Drum Major Instinct is a completely different, totally instrumental listening experience as drums and various percussion mix with fife, wooden recorders, harmonica, saxophone and guitar. Some of it is focused on beats but there are melodic passages in some selections too.
Further insight is found in Flemons’ opening introduction –“In 2014, my goal as a solo artist was to fully establish my moniker and brand “The American Songster,” which showcases my wide range of musical styles covering over one hundred years of American music. Relocating to Hillsborough, North Carolina from 2013-2016, I focused my energy into my partnership with Music Maker Relief Foundation who I have worked with since 2005 as an artist and a board member. …During my time in North Carolina, I was able to redevelop my solo career and expand my repertoire outside of string band music. I spent many days listening to vinyl records, 78s and CDs discovering new genres of music in record stores all across the country and the world. I took these influences and transformed them into this album that redefines “The American Songster.”
So, over 100 years of American music awaits. Dig in and appreciate Flemons’ remarkable gifts.
- Jim Hynes