When it comes to music, Dex Romweber, in his rootsy, underground way, is as cool it gets. Even so, the leader of North Carolina’s Flat Duo Jets never stoops to snobbery.
Romweber — despite having such heavyweight fans as Jack White, Ty Segall, Neko Case and Dan Auerbach — remains a populist. He also has a fierce streak of individualism. And like his own inspirations — a rainbow encompassing Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, classical music titan Ludwig van Beethoven and obscure rockabilly cat Benny Joy — Romweber is authentic.
“All those guys were individuals,” Romweber said of Cash, Williams and the other inspirations. “They weren’t part of a scene, which rockabilly has become with the upright bass and pompadours. When I was really young, I fell into that. But I have a saying: Music is about breaking down barriers, not setting them up.”
From Romweber’s unschooled but quality-driven perspective, music is about spirit, not style.
“There aren’t people like Johnny Cash anymore,” he mused. “He came from a hard upbringing. He picked cotton. Nowadays, we’ve got it a lot easier, and that affects the way music sounds. These older people had grit and soul. And I’m not saying my life has been the hardest, but it’s had its share of knocks.”
Despite the admiration of celebrities — Jack White dubbed him one of “the best kept secrets of the rock ’n’ roll underground” — Romweber has always been a gig-to-gig, working musician. As advantageous as it would be for him to wave a rockabilly flag, he won’t do it.
“I’m kind of an anomaly,” he said. “I want to get away from any generic sort of thing.”
Romweber’s eclecticism rings through his discography. You hear it from Flat Duo Jet’s 1990 debut, “Wild Wild Love,” reissued last month as a three-LP vinyl box set, to his 2016 solo album, “Carrboro.”
The new album features six original songs and seven interpretations. There’s Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” a heart-wrenching ballad previously sung by Nat King Cole and Petula Clark. There’s T Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton’s “I Don’t Know,” a song performed by Jeff Bridges’ troubled country-singer in “Crazy Heart.”
Also on “Carrboro,” Romweber renders gospel great Mahalia Jackson’s “Trouble of the World” as a tragic end-of-the world dirge. And echoing jazz singer-trumpeter Chet Baker’s otherworldly reading of a Rodgers and Hart Broadway classic, Romweber presents his haunted take on “My Funny Valentine.”
“If I like a song, I’ll do it,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what genre it is.”
The guitar and bass duo format Romweber has worked in since Flat Duo Jets formed in 1984 in Chapel Hill is another influence on his music making. It compelled him to compensate for the lack of other instruments.
“Bass is important to me,” Romweber said. “Also chord solos. I’m hitting the low bass note while I’m doing riffs, too. I learned that from Buddy Holly records. That made a lot of sense to me.”
Paradoxically, Romweber isn’t a fan of duos. His ultimate band would be a five-piece group, such as the Rolling Stones.
“It’s not that I don’t think a duo can be good, but it’s limited,” he said. “With the duo thing, it’s more about the spirit you carry than how many instruments are going on. If Jerry Lee Lewis performed with only a drummer, it would probably sound just fine.”
Flat Duo Jets/Neil Werries
WHEN: 7 p.m. Tuesday
WHERE: Dyson House Listening Room, 7575 Jefferson Highway, Baton Rouge