All the requisite Billies
When a Nashville journalist asked Dex Romweber about a new song the guitarist had recorded, Dex told him, “It’s a kind of a dark, sort of hillbilly blues…folkie, rock ‘n’ roll thing. It’s hard for me to describe. You’ll just have to hear it.” Dex’s music mixes so many uniquely American elements that even he has trouble describing it. What you hear when you listen to it, though, is a veritable who’s-who of rock music’s Southern progenitors: Gene Vincent, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Link Wray, Buddy Holly, Little Richard. Throw in some Duke Ellington, Hasil Adkins, Django Reinhardt, Dick Dale, Ella Fitgerald, and The Cramps, and you’ve got a list of ingredients longer than any recipe in Dana Holyfield’s classic book Swamp Cookin’ with the River People.
It still doesn’t give a full sense of what Dex sounds like.
In underground music circles, Dex is a legend. During the late 1980s and ’90s he fronted North Carolina’s fabled Flat Duo Jets. They were a raw, influential two-piece who blended surf, rockabilly, Blues, hillbilly, garage and country into a savage, one-of-a-kind slurry that paved the way for 21st century roots-rock duos such as The Black Keys and The White Stripes. By the time the ’90s ended, he lost his band and his health but never lost his commitment to music.
Dex entered the new century playing the music he always loved, solo, with friends, and soon, his sister Sara Romweber. Together they formed the Dex Romweber Duo.
She plays drums with the force of a tornado. He writes the songs, sings and plays guitar. Due to the relative simplicity of this and Flat Duo’s arrangement, many people call Dex’s music “straight” rock ‘n’ roll, or “authentic” and “stripped-down.” No bass. No keyboard. No backup singers. Just Dex on a cheap, aging Silvertone run through a medium-size amp, backed by savage drums. He doesn’t even use effects pedals, only drapes a microphone over his amp.
What I’m getting at is: Although Dex’s music is elemental and unpretentious, stylistically it’s hard to classify.
Rockabilly, hillbilly and surf undoubtedly provide the basic components, but the end result could be called an amalgam of all the requisite, sub-genre billies: gothabilly for its frequent dark, haunting, melancholic qualities; surfabilly for his guitar tone and instrumental compositions; trashabilly for the occasional B-movie themed lyrics and loose, garagey feel; and of course rockabilly for the dynamic chugalugging rhythm. I used to call his music “Dexabilly,” then in 2006 he released the album Piano which consisted of thirteen original classical piano compositions in the style of Chopin, and I had to rethink the suffix –billy.
Born in Indiana in 1966, John Michael Dexter Romweber has spent most of his life in and around Chapel Hill. His mother played piano. Two of his six older siblings played in bands, and he formed his first, called Crash Landon and The Kamikazes, at age eleven. When he met a drummer named Chris “Crow” Smith in high school, they started jamming together, learning songs they pulled from the Romweber family’s enormous collection of 1950s records. They dubbed themselves Flat Duo Jets, and Dex moved into a detached garage in his parents’ backyard. He and Crow nicknamed it The Moz, short for mausoleum, and decorated it like The Addams Family’s house. You can see it for yourself on YouTube. By which I mean you have to see this footage on YouTube.
MTV filmed a short segment about the Jets for the show “The Cutting Edge,” and in it, The Moz more closely resembles a haunted house than any domestic structure. The front door frame is cocked sideways. Vines stripe the dirty white walls. Boulders and cement pylons fill the yard, and the interior is as dark as a cave. When the MTV crew goes in, their camera provides the main source of illumination. A beam shoots through the subterranean darkness like light from a spelunker’s headlamp. Towers of junk stand in the room’s center—tables, chairs, ironwork—though you can’t tell how much for sure. There appears to be a tree in there too. There’s definitely a bed. In one shot you see Crow sitting on it in front of a table made from a coffin that they found in the woods by the railroad tracks. The coffin’s covered with cigarette butts and beer cans. Bottles rattle on the ground as Dex leads the crew to his shrine for James Brown. After he shows them photos of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and Gene Vincent, he taps his cigarette ash on the floor.
Dex and Crow.
God damn, those two made magic together.
I regret not getting to see Flat Duo play during the ’90s. I hadn’t heard of them back then. If their name crossed my path, it didn’t register, and I would not have appreciated them in high school anyway. I wasn’t ready. Even the fast rock songs had a hiccup rhythm that didn’t suit my appetite for grinding distorted guitars, but in college, during my surf music phase, I would have appreciated Dex’s rock instrumentals. What ultimately got me ready was The Cramps, which led me to early rockabilly, which primed me for the Flat Duo Jets’ unhinged performances.
Initially, Flat Duo Jets was only a duo because no one else was around to play, but soon the arrangement produced such a fluid, intuitive interplay between Dex and Crow that theirs became a telepathic connection. Crow seemed to always know what Dex was going to do next. They recorded their first album live in 1985. A tiny independent released it on cassette.
They recorded songs at home and in local studios. They recorded other songs in weird places to experiment with acoustics.
On the album Safari, a janitor kicks Dex out of Chapel Hill’s Morehead Planetarium bathroom while he’s playing a haunting, soulful version of “The Lonesome Road.” You can hear the exchange. “Excuse me. I’m afraid I can’t let you do that in here.” He literally stopped Dex during a blistering solo.
“Okay,” said Dex. “Sure.”
Nothing could slow him down.
Flat Duo performed around North Carolina’s Research Triangle and in hip, youthful spots like Athens, Georgia, and their raucous music attracted as much attention as Dex’s wild stage presence. His face contorted and his eyes rolled back in his head. He frothed, jogged in place, and swung his body as if temporarily freed from gravity. People thought he was possessed, but everyone from R.E.M to the B-52’s took notice.
In the film Athens, GA: Inside Out, and in the documentary Dexter Romweber: Two Headed Cow, the Jets play a show in winter on a frat house’s porch. Director Tony Gayton filmed the band on tour in the early ’90s but, due to various unforeseen problems, had to abandon the project until decades later. Gayton never found a commercial distributor, he released the documentary on his own label. Although it makes a strong case for Dex’s genius, it contains far less concert footage than many fans would like.
After releasing their first full-length album in 1990, the Jets toured to support it, opening for rockabilly B-movie gore-hounds The Cramps. They even played a fiery rendition of Benny Joy’s primitive rock scorcher “Wild Wild Lover” on Late Night with David Lettermen.
Dex has always worn his influences on his sleeve. From his Flat Duo Jets records to his solo records to his recent work with his brilliant sister Sara, Dex plays as many originals as covers. He’s a walking encyclopedia of music history and esoterica, possessing the sort of deep mental catalogue that provides an unending supply of material to cover.
On Chased by Martians he does a straight-ahead version of Eddie Cochrane’s “Guybo,” as well as a version of W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” played in the style of Django Reinhardt. He covers Ronnie Allen’s “Juvenile Delinquent” and Peanuts Wilson’s “Cast Iron Arm” on Safari. He does a blazing live rendition of The Collins Kids’ “Hoy Hoy Hoy” on Two Headed Cow and has been playing an amped rendition of the 16th century English folk song “Froggy Went A Courting” (aka “Frog Went A-Courtin’”) for what seems like forever. Link Wray’s instrumental classic “Bombora” appears on Blues That Defy My Soul, and on the Jets’ second album Go Go Harlem Baby, Dex transforms Duke Ellington’s “Harlem Nocturne” into a haunting surf instrumental. Jim Dickinson produced that album. The thing is, Dex is one of those rare performers who makes covers sound like originals.
When I once told him that his live version of Wray’s “Mr. Guitar” on Two Headed Cow is more energetic and musically complex than the original, Dex shook his head. “Ah man,” he said, “I don’t know about that.” Apples to oranges maybe, but the fact remains: When a song gets the Romweber treatment, all the muscle, fire and rhythm of the primary document gets passed through his manic filter, transmuted through his fingers, and amplified with such intensity that the material is reborn into something approaching the raw, unbridled energy released from a supernova. He’s not recreating the past from some sense of nostalgia. He’s transmuting it by channeling the same spontaneous brilliance that powered artists like Jerry Lee Lewis and early Elvis.
Dex’s career clearly isn’t a commercial venture. It’s one born of a dedication to his passions. He plays the music he likes, and he hopes you’ll like it too. As Sara once told me at a show: “That’s the thing about my brother: He has no gimmick. There’s no shtick.”
He’s been listening to a lot of the same music since he was a kid. In high school he was so obsessed with rockabilly that he wrote a European history paper on Denmark simply because rockabilly was experiencing a sudden popularity there. His relationship with rock ‘n’ roll might best be summarized by the lyrics in his cover of Ronnie Dawson’s song “Rockin’ Bones”: Well when I die buried six foot deep, with a rock ‘n’ roll record at my feet. A phonograph needle in my hand. I’m gonna rock my way right out of this land.
Flat Duo Jets folded in the late ’90s due to poor record sales and internal tensions, but Dex did not. How do you drain the force from a magnet? His fingers were made to touch strings. Just watch him before a show. He’ll be standing to one side of the stage, or maybe by the merch table, back door, or soundboard. He’ll have his old Silvertone strapped on, and you’ll know it’s him because he’ll be swaying back and forth, kind of walking in place, while he works the strings in what seems both a trance and a finger exercise.
You might call his music underappreciated. You might call it obscure. Jack White of The White Stripes calls it “one of the best kept secrets of the rock ‘n’ roll underground.” White is a huge fan of roots music. In 2009 and ’10, he recorded a new Wanda Jackson album, and produced Loretta Lynn’s Grammy Award-winning Van Lear Rose in 2004. In the August 2009 rock-doc It Might Get Loud, White cites Dex as a key influence, admitting that he owned all Flat Duo Jets’ records when he was a teenager. That same year, in his new home studio in Nashville, White even recorded a 7-inch with Dex and Sara for his Third Man label. One side was a cover of Geeshie Wiley’s haunting old “Last Kind Word Blues.” The other was a Dex original called “The Wind Did Move.”
While Jack was sitting in the control room, watching Dex play in the studio through the glass, Jack turned to Sara with a huge smile on his face and said, “You have no idea how long I’ve waited to hear that guitar tone in my studio.”
Other musicians have also recently honored Dex’s talent and influence. The Dex Romweber Duo’s first album Ruins of Berlin features cameos by Neko Case, Chan Marshall of Cat Power, Rick Miller of Southern Culture on the Skids, and Exene Cervenka of the seminal punk band X. Yet, despite such deserved tribute, the eternal question remains: Why do some of the world’s great musical talents go unrecognized while arguably lesser ones become household names?
Maybe if the Jets hadn’t broken up, Dex would be famous instead of infamous. Maybe if the Dex Duo had played Conan O’Brien before Conan’s NBC show folded, he wouldn’t still be playing to tiny audiences in tiny clubs. Surely an NPR appearance would be enough to hurl him into the popular consciousness. Even in our era of instantaneous information and social networking sites, some news travels slowly. But maybe Dex will aways just be too much for most people and their Spotify playlist tastes.
A month after the Dex Duo released their debut album Ruins of Berlin in 2009, the band played a cavernous WWII-era Quonset hut turned college bar in Tucson, Arizona.
Appropriately named The Hut, the bar at in the city’s university district, an area where drinks tend to be sweet and neon, and clubs are known more for their 2-for-1 ladies’ nights than live music. There were only eleven people watching the show that night. There’d been five at the beginning.
I drove from Phoenix to see the show and planned to see them the next night in Phoenix, too.
I sat on a stool near the tiny stage. Behind me at the bar stood nearly 40 University of Arizona sorority and fraternity kids. They wore plastic Mardi Gras beads around their necks, and they raised glasses and woohooed to each other while downing shots. The Hut’s arched aluminum roof amplified the noise, and sometimes customer chatter threatened to swallow Dex’s guitar.
He and Sara tore through a slew of fast-paced covers: Benny Joy’s “I Need a Whole Lotta You,” “Ruins of Berlin” from the 1948 film A Foreign Affair, and the fiery surf instrumental “Thunderhead” by the band The Thunderheads.
In the middle of Kitty Lester’s upbeat 1962 hit “Love Letters,” a tall, tan, long-legged woman in super short shorts sauntered up to the stage. A piece of paper was pinned to the back of her tight white shirt. It had a number printed on it, like in a 10K. She said something to Sara that made Sara shake her head. When she whispered it to Dex, he told the girl, “I don’t think so honey.”
The woman had requested they play the Stones’ “Beast of Burden.”
At one point, three college guys stepped close to my stool to watch the band. They wore flip flops and board shorts, reeked of cologne. One was talking on his phone, or trying to until the Duo’s gypsy-surf instrumental “Cigarette Party” drove him outside. One of the remaining guys turned to me and yelled, “You know this guy?” pointing at the stage. When I nodded yes, the kid said, “He’s a friend of yours?”
Not personally, I told him. “I’m just a fan.”
He squinted as if digesting the idea that this was not a local music showcase, then he asked if I liked reggae. I leaned off my stool to get close to the kid’s ear. “He’s one of the best rock ‘n’ roll guitarists alive,” I said, “and you should stick around and watch. You won’t be disappointed.” The kid stood there for nearly two songs before returning to the crowd of revelers. When I saw him again after the show, he and his two buddies were each carrying copies of Ruins of Berlin.
“Bye Dex,” one of them said. “Awesome show man.”
Dex shook their hands as they streamed past. “Thanks for coming guys.” He patted his shirt pocket searching for his cigarettes, and a local kid with a synthesizer and a didgeridoo took the stage.
After the show, I found Dex and Sara smoking and laughing outside. When I told them how much I loved finally seeing them play, they told me to hang out, and we talked outside about music and life until 1am. Cigarette after cigarette got smoked. Drinks got drank. Sara draped her arm around my shoulder and told me about Dex as a kid, and we just laughed and laughed.
On stage, they were a force of nature. Off stage, they were some of the warmest people I’d ever met.
Talking music, I told Dex how much I loved early Elvis, and he asked, “But what do you think about later Elvis?” I said I didn’t listen to later Elvis. He seemed cornier. Dex smirked. “Well, don’t dismiss him,” he said. “I’m telling you, there’s some great music there. Watch the movies. Tell me what you think after that. Some of those movies are really great.”
I promised him I would. And he was right: I found some killer stuff!
Sara liked Elvis enough, but she really loved world music. “America thinks it’s the center of everything,” she said, “music, culture, everything. But there’s so much out there.” She told me how flamenco was the pop music of Spain. She’d been actively studying world music and rhythmic traditions and got really into flamenco and gypsy music. She and Dex play in 4/4 and 3/4, she explained, but gypsy is often in 12/8 and other really hard to follow time signatures. “You couldn’t just pick it up and play it,” she said. “You have to really learn it. That’s what’s great to playing with Dex is that, his music is so basic.” She paused at the word, as if she were insulting it somehow. “Basic as in, you can take all that you know, all that energy, and pour it into it. Like with all my taste in world music, it can somehow fit in what we’re dong.
You can hear her taste on her drumming on songs like “Cigarette Party” and “Lover’s Gold.”
She was also a huge Django Reinhardt fan, but of all musical styles, she said classical was her favorite.
“For drumming,” I asked, “do you like late-50s and early-60s jazz or later?
“Late-60s,” she said. “Elvin Jones is my favorite jazz drummer. I love him, love him, love him.” She mentioned Jones’ time with John Coltrane and his few solo records then stubbed out her cigarette. “Also Art Blakey,” she said. “The way he smiles—just beaming—while those sounds come out of him? Amazing.”
“Love Blakey!” I said. “What about Philly Jo Jones?”
She smacked my left knee and said, “Oh my God, yes. He is incredible. He gets a great rhythm and groove out of his set, but he is also so free, so fluid. Although I lacked the musical terminology to express what I hear when listening to Jones play, I hear things like odd time signatures, playing the high hat like a bass, brush rolls where I didn’t expect them, switching times, and so much nuance. She understood what I mean. “It’s all open,” she said. “To him, the song is completely open.”
The night passed like this.
“Even as the older sister,” Sara told me, “I’m really quiet. I’m like I was as a kid in my room: hiding out, saying nothing. This is his thing. I follow his lead. He’s the boss.”
Smiling, Dex shrugged.
“I’m just saying,” she said. “That’s my motto: Non-threatening. Hell, I bug him because I don’t do anything. I read.”
She seemed pretty not-quiet this night. She was a riot.
She was clearly the caretaker too, making sure Dex was okay on tour, monitoring his emotional state and health even in a faint way. It was very sweet, the old sister taking care of her fragile, gifted brother. Our artistic geniuses can fall prey to the most common physical irritations, because their minds and spirits are too big for these stupid ass bodies of our.
“I got a funny story for you,” Sara said. Her husband is a classical guitar player. When they’d been together for six years, Dex needed a drummer, and he approached Sarah to play with him. Her husband hadn’t heard or seen Dex’s music, she said, and being curious, he asked if he could come to their gig. This was their first public performance together as the Duo, so Sarah told her husband, “Well, this one might not be the best one to see.” He came anyway and afterwards told her that the only other rock band he’d ever seen perform was Yes. “The first rock band he ever saw was Yes!” she said laughing, dipping her head forward. “And the second was us!” They blew his mind. He said it was like nothing he’d ever heard, then he told her, “Does your brother need help tuning his guitar?” She said, “No, I think he’s okay.”
My friend and I saw the Duo play Phoenix the following night, and we hung out with them after the show.
The Mexican food they ate for dinner didn’t sit well with him, and he leapt off the stage after the last song and beelined straight for the bathroom. I’d never seen that before.
When they came back through town around 2010, we saw them again, opening for Exene Cervenka. Dex had just woken up in the van and was tired when I found him. He somehow remembered my name. He said his Silvertone had gotten ripped off on tour—the Silvertone he’d had since the Flat Duo Jets. He was bummed and feared he’d never see it again, but he tried to be practical about it. And like always on stage, he and Sara ripped.
It was crushing to hear the news: In 2019, Sara passed away at the age of 55. She had a brain tumor.
Dex still plays. He probably always will. I can’t imagine how devastated he was from losing his sister.
“Sara Romweber was one of the kindest, most unique and inspiriting people I’ve known,” wrote her friend Mac MacCaughan, cofounder of the band Superchunk and Merge Records. “She was so important to me that I wrote a paper about her my freshman year in college. The Romweber home on Pine Street in Carrboro [North Carolina] was open to everyone and the heart of a musical community. [She was] a fantastically powerful and creative drummer — watching her play was a joy, no matter what band.”
We’d only hung out three times, but her loss really affected me, too, because her warmth affected me so deeply.
I’ve seen hundreds of shows. Their show in Tucson remains one of the greatest shows of all. Hanging out with those two is one of the highlights of my music life: just passionate people talking, living the music they love, and letting the rest of us be a part of it.
Thank you Dex and Sara.