Dom Flemons grew up in Arizona, where barbecue pits and shops called Strictly Western dot the landscape and more than 600 rodeos take place every year. He watched Western movies, but as a black kid, didn't see himself in them. Flemons grew up to become a leader in 21st-century folk music, co-founding the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a string band that revolutionized the folk world by showing old-timey music's African roots.
After leaving that group, Flemons explored various other musical byroads before setting his sights on the West of his youth and discovering an obscured but rich legacy of music made by and about black cowboys. His latest album, Black Cowboys, uncovers the connections between classic songs like "Home on the Range" and the blues of the Texas-Lousiana border; tells the tales of real-life superheroes like Bass Reeves, the first black U.S. Marshal in the West; and re-envisions the West as a key landing place for black people starting new lives after their emancipation from slavery. What emerges within this music is a vision of a West that was never just a preserve of men who looked like John Wayne, but instead was dynamically diverse — Latinx, Native and black as well as white.
Released on Smithsonian Folkways, the label that for 70 years has documented songs of the American vernacular, Black Cowboys explodes the stereotypes that have dominated one of America's founding mythologies and opens up the frontier for all to claim. Flemons joined us for songs and conversation at Sound Stage Studios in Nashville, Tenn. Hear the complete session in the player above.