Phoenix is where Flemons cut his teeth as a performer. In high school, he’d haunt local record stores and attend folk shows at venues. He bought his first guitar at iconic shop Ziggie’s Music before learning the finer points of the genre at local festivals.
After leaving Arizona in the mid-2000s, he’s since gone on to greater fame, forming the Carolina Chocolate Drops, releasing several critically acclaimed albums encompassing a diversity of early American musical styles and genres (ranging from early jazz and blues to country and folk), and been featured on David Holt's PBS show State of Music. He’ll always have “a special place in his heart” for the Valley, though.
"There's just something special about [the Valley]," Flemons told Phoenix New Times during a recent phone interview. “It’s not just because I’m from there, but because I learned so much about what it is to be an artist when I lived there.”
This weekend, Flemons returns home for a performance on Saturday night at the Musical Instrument Museum. New Times spoke with him about some of his favorite spots in Phoenix and how they played a role in developing his career.
Tracks in Wax4741 North Central Avenue, 602-274-2660
The famed midtown Phoenix record store was where Flemons got exposed to many influential folk and blues artists as a teenager, and it was within walking distance of his high school.
“I went to Central High School just down the street and I could walk over to Tracks in Wax whenever I wanted to pick up some great records. Thinking back, it was the first time I saw albums by [folk artists] Jim Kweskin and Eric Andersen,” Flemons says. “When I first got to see The History of Rock 'n' Roll documentary on television, I was looking for a lot of that music. And Tracks in Wax had a great variety of ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s stuff in their crates. I picked up my first Hendrix over there, my first Van Morrison records.”
The store’s original owners, Don and Dennis Chiesa, also influenced Flemons and took him on deep dives into music history. “I got to know both of them over the years and loved talking to them. When Don was still working there, he actually gave me my very first Jelly Roll Morton LP, New Orleans Memories, and began telling how the record was made in 1947, which was a quintessential year for the transition between 78 RPM photo albums and long-playing LPs. And for a kid that was 17 years old, it was really great information to know.”
Stinkweeds Record Store12 West Camelback Road, 602-948-9461
Flemons was also a patron of Stinkweeds, which moved to its current location on Camelback Road just west of Central Avenue in 2004. He still stops by every time he comes back to Phoenix.
“Stinkweeds has always been a place that I constantly frequent every chance I get. It's definitely transitioned a lot over the years,” Flemons says. “They've always got a great selection, especially blues. On the West Coast and the Southwest, it used to be really hard to find country-blues music at first. Most of the music was BB King or Electric Blues Band records, so I was always looking for that early country blues and would find it [at Stinkweeds].”
Ziggie’s Music3309 North Third Street, 602-266-9622
Long-running Third Street store Ziggie’s Music has been equipping local performers with instruments for almost 90 years, including such famous names as Duane Eddy, Alice Cooper, and Waylon Jennings. Flemons is also on the list, as he bought his first guitar at Ziggie’s in the early 2000s.
“After deciding I wanted to play the guitar in general, I had like $60 to spend. I'd been looking around everywhere and I went into Ziggie's and the woman who runs the place was kind enough to sell me one for the discounted price,” he says. “And it's a beautiful place with the guitarróns and the mariachi instruments as well. So it's like a funky hodge-podge store that I came to love. I also bought my first four-string banjo there, so it will always have a special place in my heart.”
Encanto Park2605 North 15th Avenue, 602-261-8991
When Flemons was taking his first steps as a musician, he wound up going to Encanto Park in central Phoenix, which hosted the now-defunct Phoenix Folk Festival.
“That was where I did some of the first performances when I was this 16-year-old kid in high school and learning guitar with my first three chords. My mother saw a report on the Phoenix Folk Festival [at Encanto Park] on television and told me I should go check it out,” he says. “I went there and started learning about bluegrass and Woody Guthrie and all of those wonderful folk [artists] right on the spot. I was then introduced to a community of musicians who had open hearts when it came to sharing the word of individual expression. I got to see a lot of different performers playing a lot of different styles of music, from cowboy singers to a fellow who played Irish tenor banjo.”
First Friday Art Walk/Roosevelt RowRoosevelt Street between Central Avenue and Seventh Street
Flemons would later play out at the monthly First Friday art walks in downtown Phoenix in the early 2000s, typically in front of galleries and other spots as one of the many street performers working the event. Back then, the event had more of a rough-around-the-edges DIY vibe and less of a polished sheen it does today.
“This was years before the art walk became anything official and more like just a mass of people showing up over on Roosevelt,” he says. “So I used to set up my guitar on the sidewalk, start jamming on some songs, and throw my hat down on the ground. Just old-fashioned busking.”
Fiddler's Dream1702 East Glendale Avenue, 602-997-9795
Flemons was also known to frequent folk music hot spots like this long-running coffeehouse and venue in north-central Phoenix.
“Fiddler’s Deam was always a really interesting place. I’d go in to see shows and sometimes play,” he says. “Probably my most memorable moment at Fiddler's Dream was getting a chance to see the folk singer Dave Van Ronk. I got to see him in 2001, maybe four months before he passed away. And his format of playing songs and telling anecdotes and stories between those songs was something I incorporated into my show instantly after hearing him. There was a few other small gatherings I used to [play] over there, they used to have a Phil Ochs night I played at a bunch. I think I was pretty much the only person under 30 that was playing.”
Drumbeat Indian Arts4143 North 16th Street, 602-266-4823
This Native American-focused music and arts emporium in midtown Phoenix has been patronized by Flemons over the years, particularly its selection of releases from Canyon Records, the Arizona label owned by musician R. Carlos Nakai.
“It’s a beautiful place and I’ve bought a lot of records there. I've always kept it in mind, especially when I want to get some of the really interesting Native American stuff that's not the mainstream,” Flemons says. “I love Canyon Records stuff. On my album Prospect Hill, I covered one of the songs that I heard on a Canyon Records [album], ‘Sonora Church Two-Step,’ it's a Tohono O'odham fiddle number. I first heard it over at Canyon Records. It's sort of the predecessor to chicken scratch music.”