With the thousands of music blogs, mp3 aggregators and countless newspaper/magazine Web sites currently online, there aren’t many unturned stones in the world of rock/pop (or any other genre, really). Each day a new band is crowned the Next Big Thing, or some long-defunct act gets revived (or at least rehashed).
But have you ever heard the name Dexter Romweber? Or maybe you might know the name of his band for over a decade, the Flat Duo Jets? No? Then read on and find out why he is cited as a major influence of several notable names, including Jack White of the White Stripes.
What’s interesting about the Chapel Hill, N.C.-based Romweber is that he has remained focused – over 20 years and a dozen or more albums – on honing his rockabilly guitar/drums/voice attack. He’s got an incredible voice, capable of going from a tuneful croon all the way to a banshee shriek within the same song. He’s an accomplished guitar player as well, sticking to the same Silvertone electric and coaxing out a specific sound reminiscent of Eddie Cochran or other rockabilly axe-swingers – yet more raw, more primal.
His career, sadly, has been a story of near-misses. Romweber and former bandmate Chris “Crow” Smith got together in the mid-1980s and put out nine self-made records that were appreciated by fellow musicians but remained entirely under the pop culture radar. They finally hooked up with a bigger label and a well-known producer (Scott Litt) for 1998’s “Lucky Eye,” only to acrimoniously part ways only months after the record’s release. In 2006’s Jets documentary two-headed cow, Romweber cited a money issue with Smith as the reason for the breakup, yet has distanced from that statement in subsequent interviews.
Romweber dropped out of sight for a while, then resurfaced several years ago and has been touring with his sister Sara, formerly the drummer for jangly 1980s band Let’s Active. The newly-christened Dexter Romweber Duo has opened for Cat Power and Southern Culture on the Skids, but is still playing smaller venues, and Romweber, now 41, admitted in an interview last year to occasionally mowing lawns and other menial work just to pay the rent.
“Dexter Romweber was and is a huge influence on my music. I owned all of his records as a teenager, and was thrilled at the fact that we were able to play together recently on tour. His attitude towards music is remarkable. And his songwriting, along with his love of classic American music from the south, be it rockabilly, country or R&B, is one of the best kept secrets of the rock n roll underground.”
The aforementioned documentary garnered some press, and his appearance at 2007’s South By Southwest conference and other opening-act stints are also drawing new fans. One can hope Romweber will ultimately end up with a bigger place in American rock history than simply a few appearances on other artists’ “influenced by” lists.
For your listening pleasure, here is an audio clip of the Flat Duo Jets’ “Baby” from their eponymous 1990 album:
And here is a clip from the film where I first learned about the Jets: The 1986 documentary Athens, Ga: Inside/Out. This clip begins with a young REM performing “Swan Swan H”; you can find an excerpt of the Jets (who temporarily relocated to Athens a little while before this documentary was made) performing a blistering number in a subfreezing outdoor setting at the 3:50 mark: