BeJae Fleming prefers the road
are days when BeJae Fleming locks
herself in a room and plays guitar
for hours on end until her fingers
wear out in a futile attempt to
cool her creative fires. Those
days don't occur as frequently
as they used to, but when they
do, they are more rewarding for
the veteran singer-songwriter,
who has embraced the autumn of
At age 55, there's a genuine
smile in Fleming's Southern drawl,
but there are no stars in her
eyes. She doesn't fear the cool
police or our culture of youth.
Nashville isn't calling, nor is
Los Angeles, and that's fine with
her. She remains, as Jack Kerouac
once advised writers of modern
prose, "submissive to everything,
open and listening" and has
"no fear or shame in the
dignity of her experience, language
"I've been doing this for
a long time and seen the cycles,"
Fleming says. "All I want
to do is play guitar and write
songs and I've wound up at this
incredible point in my life where
I love what I'm doing more than
I ever have before."
Fleming's happiness can be measured
in many ways. The Greensboro,
N.C., native spent part of the
'70s honing her craft in Texas
at the persuasion of Townes Van
Zant, who she befriended early
in her career, but has found comfort
in Ames' liberal university setting
for the past 12 years. She works
part-time at the Ames Public Library
and gigs as often as she can in
clubs, as well as at some of the
unlikeliest of places you'll find
live music, with her trio that
includes veterans Jackie Blount
(bass) and Al Clarke (guitar).
She has a first-rate new album
out on Trailer Records, "Destination
Unimportant," a co-op of
like-minded artists who she admits
has influenced her. And perhaps
most important, after having spent
more than 30 years in the music
business touring the country and
enjoying modest success, Fleming
understands the world doesn't
owe her a thing - one of many
lessons she shares with listeners
on "Destination Unimportant."
"A lot of its songs deal
with where I am as a musician,"
she says. "I do this because
I want to. There's no big career
for me. There's no five-year plan
or something big for me to achieve
except to keep doing this thing
that defines who I am. And I think
the same is true for Jackie and
Al, though they have careers outside
"The fabulous thing about
sort of failing at making a career
in music is that you go back to
it for the reason you started
doing it, which is you love it.
Only now, we're better at it than
when we started and we can enjoy
Such facts of existence are
cruel irony for young artists
who entertain thoughts of becoming
stars, but never realize their
dreams. Then again, success means
something different to everyone.
Often just being able to pay the
bills doing what you love is reward
enough. And sometimes success
happens when you least expect
it, though Fleming isn't holding
"There's not much room
for that in the music industry,"
she says. "That's the kind
of thing David Zollo tried to
overcome with Trailer Records,
that very injustice. Business-wise,
it's an injustice if you're a
late bloomer - forget it. But
the actual playing is so amazing
once you get rid of the notion
you have to succeed at it. Once
that's done it really opens the
is a clear-cut example of Fleming
walking through that door and
reveling in the freedom of such
discoveries. A highly personable
album of honest and spacious songs
that meld country, folk, blues
and rock, it is as much a retrospective
of Fleming's experiences as it
is a soul journey. And to help
capture that feeling, she recruited
producer/keyboardist Zollo, drummer
Steve Hayes and engineer Steve
"It has a particular feel
to it I like," Fleming says.
"It has the feel of the band
instead of a treatment of the
songs that doesn't reflect what
the band really sounds like."
is also at once Southern and Midwestern,
though its creator says she is
rooted by music, not by place.
a prophetic ditty in light of
the devastation of New Orleans,
is as regionally insightful as
Fla.) and "Rudy's,"
co-written by Brother Trucker's
Andy Fleming (no relation). Fleming
attributes the songs' authenticity
to years of touring, proving home
is merely a state of mind.
"I've spent most of my
life as a touring musician, so
I'm not writing about places I
haven't been to or played,"
she says. "As a touring musician
you have that connection to places,
you have stories from there. When
you travel you become hyper aware
of a place."
Fleming might be writing about
places far away from Iowa, but
brings her one step closer to
the "Iowa sound." It's
a sound, she says, that is fueled
by traditional blues and resonates
with her more clearly than that
of the claw-hammer banjo-style
bluegrass music she grew up with
in North Carolina.
"I think of Bo Ramsey as
the quintessential 'Iowa sound'
guy," Fleming says. "It's
a roots sound. Iowa music is influenced
more by a traditional black sound,
where North Carolina is a Scottish-Irish
sound. I like the blues and early
rock 'n' roll sound a lot better,
though I did my time playing banjo
and old time music."
Fleming credits Ramsey and fellow
Trailer Records recording artist
Joe Price for inspiring her music,
though it may not be obvious to
"I love what's happened
to me musically in Iowa,"
she says. "When I lived in
Texas I didn't appreciate the
feeling of space that I get here.
It has affected the way I play
and write. It's probably responsible
for the way I feel about music
The singer-songwriter is so
enamored with her new-found lease
on music that she plans to record
a new album in the near future
at a friend's studio in Ames.
She credits Brickel and Zollo
for making her previous studio
experience a comfortable one,
an issue she has struggled with
in the past. Once it's completed,
she hopes Trailer Records will
"Trailer has given me a
sense of community," she
says. "David has given me
that as a gift because there's
not much I can do for him. I don't
sell a lot of records or make
them a lot of money. But it's
never been about that for them
or for me."
For Fleming, music is too personable
and important to be measured by
money or popularity.
"It's hard to express how
rewarding my career is now,"
she says. "I never thought
I'd get to this place, even though
I started out as one of those
musicians playing eight hours
a day and couldn't put the guitar
down. Now I'm back to loving it.
It's a fabulous obsession. I play
what I want to play and that's
a great thing." CV
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