A 2023 National Storytelling Festival Preview
Storytelling is a surprisingly flexible art form that pulls elements, techniques, and people from other contexts in the performing arts world. One of the exciting things about the National Storytelling Festival is how it celebrates so many different approaches to the simple act of sharing a story. ISC’s featured tellers have included hybrid artists like trained mimes and dancers, poets, and musicians. The line between music and story has always been especially fluid, and it’s sometimes impossible to differentiate between storytellers who play music and musicians who tell stories.
Over 51 years, the National Storytelling Festival has been lucky to host luminaries who are well known in the music world, including Gamble Rogers, David Holt, Josh Goforth, John McCutcheon and the Reverend Robert Jones. This year, New Voice Dom Flemons joins that long line of greats. He’s a preservationist, storyteller, and instrumentalist who specializes in forgotten folk songs and traditional country music, with music and stories that inspire, educate, and delight.
Like longtime Festival favorite David Holt, Flemons is deeply invested in folk music preservation. (In fact, Flemons was featured on Holt’s PBS show about traditional music in 2017.) This work includes giving new life to forgotten folk songs, as well as telling a more inclusive story about the history of American music. Flemons has a longstanding interest in Black cowboy culture, and has collaborated with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture on a project that pays tribute to their music and poetry.
He’s also interested in tracking down vintage African American musicians who had country music songs in their repertoire but weren’t necessarily recognized or classified as country artists, a project that first captured his attention as a college student. While an interest in archival music and how it’s classified might sound niche, this is a subject with broad and growing cultural relevance. Just earlier this year, it became part of the national conversation when Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” got a second life as a country music hit when it was covered by Luke Combs, sparking debate about identity and genre in the music world.
The public has responded to Flemons’s unique approach to blending the past and present with open arms and great acclaim. At just 41 years old, he has already received two Emmy nominations. He also won a Grammy Award for the work he did with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a string band he co-founded. Now he’s a popular touring solo musician, logging more than a million miles on the road in his career. His home base these days is in Chicago. But Flemons was born in Arizona, where he was raised in a family of vibrant movers and shakers that included preachers, civil rights leaders, and Tuskegee airmen.
At the National Storytelling Festival, in addition to his riveting stories about American music and historic folk tunes, expect to hear some original songs from “Traveling Wildfire,” the album that Flemons released earlier this year. Flemons’s father was the person who turned him on to classic country music. That early exposure undoubtedly fed Flemons’s drive to become an expert player of the banjo, guitar, harmonica, jug, and more—many of which you can expect to see on stage in Jonesborough. The International Storytelling Center is thrilled to welcome this gifted artist with such a fascinating point of view.
Dom Flemons is the fourth featured teller in our New Voice series, a preview of the 51st Annual National Storytelling Festival. Catch up on the series with our features on storyteller Jasmin Cardenas, Paul Strickland, Mo Reynolds, and Debs Newbold. We hope you join us for the Festival in Jonesborough October 6–8, 2023.