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6th generation Arizonan's song helps tell the story of 'The Real Wild West' in new show

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Tuesday, November 21, 2023 - 11:01am

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Don Flemons
Nate Kinard Jr.
Don Flemons

The Wild West wasn’t all John Wayne-style cowboys and saloon girls. And a new documentary series on Curiosity Stream is here to highlight “The Real Wild West,” and it features the stories of Black and Hispanic cowboys, immigrants, women who were homesteaders and the Indigenous leaders. 

It celebrates the unsung heroes and untold stories of the American West, including pre-Columbian tribes, the role of slavery in Western expansion and the real gunslingers and land barons that shaped our part of the country. And it’s hosted by Dom Flemons, an accomplished American folk artist — and a sixth-generation Arizonan whose work has celebrated Black cowboys and their stories. 

The Show spoke with Flemons about the series, beginning with why he wanted to host this series.

Interview highlights

DON FLEMONS: Without a doubt, you know, when I first was brought on to the project, it just went hand in hand with the work I've been doing with, with black cowboys over the past several years. And so for me, it was sort of like a way of being able to, to go back through a lot of the history that I had studied in making the project Black Cowboys. But then also there was a way to be able to show it in all of its entirety because it's a lot of information.

LAUREN GILGER: Yeah, it is. It goes through a lot of history here. Tell us before we get into more of that history, about your own family story and your kind of deep roots here in the Southwest and in Arizona, and why you felt connected to this?

FLEMONS: Well, I mean, for me, I'm 6th generation Phoenix, born and raised. So there's a lot of history in my family that goes back in Phoenix. And also there's roots that I have up in Flagstaff and in Holbrook. And those are the places that I always keep close to my heart. So whenever I do anything that's about western music or western culture, that's something that I think and hold very dearly to my heart.

GILGER: So, in this series, it's, I mean, it's called "The Real Wild West" And you're sort of looking at the maybe untold or lesser known parts of this history, like the achievements of, as you said, Black and Hispanic cowboys, female homesteaders, immigrants who were involved, tribal leaders, all of these sorts of characters that are not sort of the ones from the movies in the 1940s and 50s, right? What kinds of misconceptions are you working to dispel here in the series?

FLEMONS: Well, I think in some ways, it's more of dispelling the idea that the cowboy and Western culture is only the gun slingers and the, the action movies that you might see that come out from Hollywood. This one is really talking about, you know, blue-collar people, real working people that uprooted their entire lives to make their fortune out west. Some survived, and some didn't. But there were all of these wonderful and amazing and colorful stories that tell this in this whole spectrum of Western culture. So I think that was one of the big things we were trying to go for with this documentary.

GILGER: Tell us a little bit of the history of that. Like where do you see Black cowboys coming into western history? Why were they there?

FLEMONS: Well, I mean, from the very beginning with the United States, there was slavery and one of the ways that I guess that it shows up very directly in "The Real Wild West" is when you start to think about the Nebraska and Kansas, the exchanges that went up through those two particular states when it came to statehood and popular sovereignty. Then you had a whole situation where these two particular states that were sort of new enclaves out to the West, they had to decide whether they were pro-slavery or anti-slavery. And when you start bringing those situations in there, of course, African-Americans are present within all those situations, and they've been present throughout all of us history because with slavery being a part of the very beginning, American colonialism, you find that there are generations and generations of people that served beneath all of the people who help win the West. And so, yeah, it's a very heavy history and especially when you get into the Civil War, you find quite a few different events that are paramount to the birth of the West that also have people that of African-American descent. And of course, the cowboys are the descendants of those people, those enslaved people.

GILGER: So I mean, this is so close to your own family story, right? And to your own story. I wonder, like, does it surprise people still that you talk about Black cowboys, Mexican cowboys? Like, do, do you think in general we still have this, this 1940s idea of like the John Wayne cowboy?

FLEMONS: Well, I think in some ways we have to because it hasn't been on the screen. One of the most important pieces of this documentary is that you're putting it on the screen for people to see, and there's a power in mass communication that because so many people were brought up with the normal Hollywood cowboy stories and they see it on the screen, they still believe that that is the actual depiction of real Western culture. And so "The Real Wild West" with it being a movie and a docuseries, it allows people to be able to see the diverse, see on the screen instead of just in their own homes with their own individual family stories, which is something that I find a lot that people have, they have their own individual stories, but because they haven't seen it on the screen, they never have thought that that is a unique part of the West.

GILGER: Was there anything in the history here that, that is parsed out in the series that surprised you that even you weren't quite aware of?

FLEMONS: Well, you know, the full breakdown of the Mexican American cowboy. I thought that that was a very interesting section of "The Real Wild West," including the Castilian cowboys and, and the sort of the remnants of Spanish culture that still are a part of Mexican cowboy culture. I thought that there were some very interesting sections on that specifically on the tradition of lancing, which I thought was just a very fascinating sort of part.

GILGER: Let me ask you, Don, about the, the theme song for this, "Traveling Wildfire." This is a song you recorded for the show, the video you shot at the Superstition Mountains here. Tell us a little bit about the inspiration here.

FLEMONS: Well, when I first originally wrote the song, I was traveling down the road between gigs and I was caught in Hurricane Ida. And so that was back in the fall of 2021. And I was I was stuck in a hotel room while I was being bombarded with this, this, hurricane with all the water. And at the same time, on the television, there were reports of the fires in Southern California.

FLEMONS (in song): There's a traveling wildfire, sprawling like an endless gravel road. You can see it tearing up the mountainside. It goes where it wants to go.

And the juxtaposition between water and fire, that sort of inspired me to write the song, "Traveling Wildfire," originally. But then when I started working with "The Real Wild West," I played it for the director, Sarah Burns, and they were so moved by the song itself, they wanted to make it a theme song for the entire series. And so that's how the song evolved into becoming the theme song for the show itself.

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