RIP Dex Romweber: A Wild & Influential American Music Original

In music, one way you can break down musicians is by classifying them as either originators, or imitators. Both originators and imitators are necessary in the music world. The imitators are the ones that can take the originator’s ideas and make them accessible, present them to the masses, mix music from different originators together, and popularize styles, because sometimes the originators are too untamed, too avant-garde for mass consumption.

Someone people might finger as an originator of music is the widely-influential artist and producer Jack White, but even Jack can be broken down further. If you follow his influences, where you’ll end up is a handful of artists, including an early 90’s band called The Flat Duo Jets, and their frontman Dexter Romweber, who went on to very directly influence the formation of The White Stripes, The Black Keys, and the emergence of the two-person power duo.

It isn’t that Dex’s style is so wholly original to the ear. For convenience, you could classify it as rockabilly or roots rock, and this would be fair. But his ability to bridge and flow between so many different classic American styles: rockabilly, country, blues, jazz, surf, garage; and his ability to do it with the most unparallelled authenticity of rabid energy, is the reason that Dex Romweber became a musician’s musician.

John Michael Dexter Romweber was synonymous with music from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and is often cited as seeding the town’s current music scene. But he was actually born in Batesville, Indiana on June 18th, 1966, and grew up in Florida for a while before moving with his family to Chapel Hill in 1977. Romweber’s mother played piano, and though most will remember Dex the wild guitar player, he was a master of the keys from an early age, and released an album of Chopin-inspired originals in 2006 called Piano.

But well before that, Dex Romweber was making all kinds of loud racket in his mother’s basement in bands like Gary and the Resistors, The Remains, Crash Landon and the Kamikazes, and others. Early on, Romweber would recruit his sister Sara to play drums, initially fashioned simply out of pots and pans from the house. It was always loose, sweaty, wild-eyed roots-inspired rock and roll. But even in its earliest incarnations, it was obvious that Dex Romweber had something unique to contribute.

Romweber’s first real stab at a professional music career was through the now legendary Flat Duo Jets. Formed in the mid ’80s and releasing a locally-produced live studio album called In Stereo, the 2-piece project formed with Chris “Crow” Smith immediately started garnering a cult following in the college radio scene. For a spell, they relocated to Athens, GA where R.E.M. and the B-52’s were blowing up in the same scene.

The first official Flat Duo Jets release was their self-titled album from 1990 that had been recorded a couple years before, and they got slotted on a national tour opening for The Cramps. They appeared on Letterman, which was the hip late night show at the time. If you were cool, you knew of the Flat Duo Jets at the time.

The Flat Duo Jets eventually singed a major label deal with Geffen Records imprint Outpost Records, and released a more produced album called Lucky Eye in 1998. The album even included horns and string arrangements. But it sold poorly, though that was pretty much the case for all of the band’s records, and the Flat Duo Jets soon went belly up.

In 2008, the Flat Duo Jets got a big shout out in the film It Might Get Loud where Jack White is seen playing the band’s second album Go Go Harlem Baby for guys like Jimmy Page of Led Zepplin, and The Edge from U2, only building the mystique in the band.

But Dexter Romweber persevered on, if only due to the massive support and shout outs he commonly received from his fellow musicians who found his mix of music incredibly influential, ambitious, and infectious. Romweber released some solo albums in Chased By Martians (2001) and Blues That Defy My Soul (2004). He was getting named dropped everywhere by Jack White who’d now become a massive star and influence himself, as well as by Neko Case, Cat Power, and others.

Later Dexter Romweber would play in a band called The New Romans, and reunite with his sister Sara in the Dex Romweber Duo to release multiple albums through Bloodshot Records, including Is That You in the Blue? (2011) and Images 13 (2014), and a solo album in 2016 called Carrboro. Thought of at this point as a roots rock legend, Dex’s popularity was still barely enough to pay the bills, once saying that he felt he’d been “locked away in a Gothic castle for many years.”

Another major influence that emanated from Dex Romweber was his love for the cheaply-made Sears catalog Silvertone guitar. Considered trash guitars previously by players, Romweber and later Jack White helped popularize them, especially the black 1448 model with the white swoosh that was sold with the amplifier built right into the guitar case. They went from throwaway items to now vintage collector guitars.

In 2019, tragedy struck Dex Romweber’s life in a way he never fully recovered from. His beloved sister Sara died from a brain tumor. He lost two more of his six total siblings in 2019 as well. His mother also recently passed away. In a solemn message posted on social media Friday night, February 16th, the world was notified that Dexter Romweber had passed away at the age of 57. No cause was given, but it is believed to be from natural causes.

It wasn’t that Dexter Romweber and his wild influence didn’t go unrecognized. But he never saw the widespread popularity his music deserved. The influence of Romweber and The Flat Duo Jets needed people like Jack White to interpret it to them.

The thing I liked about the Flat Duo Jets was they were showing people what was possible in a live performance and on a record. It was really refreshing to see a band like that, that it was obvious when you watched Dexter perform, he didn’t care what people though about him, he just wanted to express these songs that were coming out of him,” Jack White once said after releasing a two-song album he recorded with the Dex Romweber Duo in 2010.

Romweber is now gone, but that influence he sowed will remain living in a host of musicians moving forward, reverberating throughout time through the wild, untethered enthusiasm he brought to roots music.

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