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North Carolina musicians and friends remember Dex Romweber, founder of Flat Duo Jets

Dex Romweber performing with Snatches of Pink
Kent Thompson
Submitted Image
Dex Romweber performing with Snatches of Pink

Last Friday, North Carolina lost one of its most beloved and influential musicians. Dex Romweber died at the age of 57, leaving behind a legacy that impacted a countless number of musicians in North Carolina and beyond.

As the founder of Flat Duo Jets, Dex gained the attention of musicians ranging from Cat Power to Jack White. WUNC Music reached out to several North Carolina musicians to speak on the influence that Dex had on them.

Mac McCaughan (Merge Records, Superchunk)

“The first time I saw Dex perform was in high school. Even though I went to Jordan, the singer for my high school band went to Chapel Hill High, so we got to play their legendary annual talent show. Dex also played. He was in high school too, but his persona and performance level were already fully formed. He came out onstage by himself except for the CHHS band director. Both were wearing tuxedos and Dex had his guitar and the band director had a conductor's baton, and it began as though Dex (seated) was going to be 'conducted' by the band director. A few seconds in Dex stands up, kicks over his chair and plays 'Shake Rattle & Roll' or something like that and everyone went nuts. I was blown away.

Dex Romweber with CHHS band director Kip Gerard.
Courtesy of Cara Gerard
Dex Romweber with Chapel Hill High School band director Kip Gerard.

"I became friends with his sister Sara a bit after that and spent a lot of time at the Romweber house. The whole family was welcoming and creative but Dex, while friendly, had more of a mystique about him and lived in a shed in the backyard they called 'the Maus' (short for Mausoleum) as documented in the IRS The Cutting Edge episode that aired on MTV at some point.

"Dex would play anywhere and always bring the same fierce rockabilly unhinged energy and emotion to all his performances whether it was at the Cat's Cradle, Pepper's Pizza or on The David Letterman Show.

"An inspiration from the first time I saw him until a show I saw in the last year or so; I can't believe I won't see him croon again.”

River Shook (Sarah Shook & The Disarmers, Mightmare)

"If the insistence upon the freedom to be oneself is the essence of rock n' roll, Dexter Romweber was rock n' roll incarnate. Banging away on his out-of-tune Silvertone guitar and snarling into a microphone, he showed who he was to anyone who cared to see: a matchless electrifying conduit, a singular beacon of creative power who could not be anything other than his true self.

"As an artist, Dex existed on an unprecedented plane of musical prowess and self-expression. As a human being, he was complicated but caring, curious, and childlike in his own way. He was inarguably, unapologetically himself in every way. He was unflappable in the face of a society that had no idea what to make of him. He was dauntless as he traversed an industry notorious for trying to mold and influence artists like him into something tame and palatable. Simply by being himself, Dex inspired me to accept my creative weirdness, to love my imperfect voice, and to perform my art without inhibition. He changed space and time. He changed rock n' roll. He changed us. Forever."

Chris Stamey (The dB’s, Sneakers)

"There are those who thought Dexter was a man possessed—by the spirit of rock 'n' roll. And I won't say that that wasn't true, in some sense. But if he was enthralled, it was by a love of music in general: he was vastly knowledgeable about many genres, always drawn to the passionate and the intense. I knew him best during the record Scott Litt and I made with him, Lucky Eye, I believe his only major-label outing, and there was wild, shakin' rockers on it for sure. But I've been going back this week to a jazz-infused song he wrote for it, called 'New York Studio 1959.'

"We cut it live guitar-bass-drums in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, then added the string orchestra in LA's Ocean Way studios, the room the Beach Boys made Pet Sounds in. His guitar playing is impeccable, his touch is velvet, and the song itself reveals the cool beauty and endlessly deep sincerity that lay at the center of everything he did. I miss you, Dex. But I listen to the recordings and think, you are still here."

Scott Litt (record producer)

"Rest in peace Dexter. One of my biggest regrets in music was not being able to fully capture his magic on vinyl. Since so much of the magic of the Flat Duo Jets was their live performance, maybe it’s not so surprising. But maybe the magic was captured by the countless cassette and phone recordings that were made by people in the audience over years of amazing performances. Dexter was a man truly possessed by his music. I’m not sure I ever met anyone quite like him.

"I’m blessed that I knew him"

Stephen Judge (Schoolkids Records)

“It’s impossible to put into words what Dex meant to Schoolkids Records, the Chapel Hill music community and to me, personally but I will try.

"He was a true rocker, it embodied every part of his being, reminding us of what music can do to us all and the spirit that flows through our veins and our soul. He was a force of nature, like a lightning bolt brought down to this earth to channel sounds from another world. When he walked in a room, the temperature changed.

"I had the pleasure of calling Dex a friend and seeing him several times a week, often busking on a street corner or in the alleyway behind the Cave, at friend’s pubs or here in the store. We had a ritual of having him play every year for Record Store Day and I was going to reach out to him this week to invite him again this year. It simply will not be the same without him here and his presence will be deeply missed. He was the heart and soul of our music community and truly defined the term 'one-of-a-kind.' We are heartbroken and miss him terribly.”

Django Haskins (The Old Ceremony)

“In a music town, Dex’s light burned with its own particular glow that was immediately recognizable and admired. He crooned and howled with equal ferocity. He was a rocker from another era but also created his own timeless sense of anguish and bravado that felt modern, especially when he played live. Privately, he was generous and philosophical. I was lucky to write him a song that he recorded ('Death of Me') and he and Sara played at my wedding, both great honors. I always got the feeling that we were all just borrowing Dex from the ages. We were lucky to have him for as long as we did.”

John Howie Jr. (Two Dollar Pistols, Finger, John Howie Jr. and the Rosewood Bluff)

Ron Liberti

 “Dexter Romweber was a true original. It’s an overused term, and people have used it to describe Dex for years, but it’s apt. Dex inherently understood that what made the artists he adored so great — be they Benny Joy, Nick Cave or Lavern Baker — was their uniqueness. Consequently, he was no copycat, no easy-to-market, cartoon “roots” musician. His influences were pretty evident, but he was his own creative person; no one sounded like him, and his music was often recognizable before he sang a note. He was a guiding light for those of us here who want to put our own stamp on roots music. He was incredibly inspiring in his stubborn refusal to be anyone but himself.”

Michael Rank (Snatches of Pink, Michael Rank and Stag)

“When asked to write a little about Dex’s influence on me and other musicians here in NC I feel somewhat like I’ve failed before I’ve even begun. As I find myself sitting in possibly a different seat than most of the locals in regards to Dex. In that when I think of Dexter it’s of his being essentially a brother-in-law to me during my many years as his sister Sara’s boyfriend (and Snatches of Pink bandmate). It’s honestly not very much to do with music at all. I actually knew Dex before I knew Sara as I was one of a string of drummers in his early band The Kamikazes. We were young teenagers rehearsing in the outdoor carport closet at his mom’s house. Like literally. A closet. I was in no way the band’s preferred or most gifted drummer but apparently I was the one that most strongly resembled Leif Garrett. An observation that Dex delighted in periodically and publicly making known. But mostly I think about all the yearly Thanksgiving and Christmas meals that alongside Sara, and most all her siblings, were shared at their mom’s house. And how for some reason Dex was the only sibling of Sara’s that I would religiously exchange Christmas gifts with year after year (a tradition that we would continue, like creatures of habit, for years even after Sara and I separated). Which for me meant greedily receiving one of his astounding paintings and I gifting him an oversized hardback on the Baroque influences found within interior design, a bootleg VHS of Jack Smith film projects, a collection of Georg Trakl poetry, a cassette of lectures from an Artaud symposium in Sweden… You know, shit like that. Our common ground. I think about how in spite of being told over and over by Sara and his mom that I profoundly hated being called Mike he would persist on calling me Mike nonetheless and then curiously more and more transitioning to calling me Mickel. Like the five-cent coin but with an M. I actually got to the point where I was ok with that one. I think about how he would leave a room. His exits were next-level purposeful. Totally committed to the choreography of departure. I think about him in these fragments. In these shards. I miss Sara every single day since her passing. I miss their mom (who also recently passed. As did brothers Luke and Joe). And now we will miss Dex. There’s no making sense in any of this.”

Ron Liberti (Pipe, visual artist)

Ron Liberti

"Needless to say, Dexter left us far too soon and our world — and everyone's — will never be the same. He was a true original, the living breathing epitome of all things great about rock and roll. Dexter inspired me in so many ways, his intensity and soulful honesty demanded total attention on every stage he graced. Even while leaning on the dumpster behind the Cave, banging out some old Everly Brothers tune on a beat-up acoustic guitar, you couldn't keep your eyes off of him, and you can tell he really meant it. I always appreciated that so much.

"Back in the heyday of slackerdom, when everything was steeped in irony, indifference and sarcasm, Dex wore his earnest heart on his sleeve and luckily for us shared it with the world. I feel so lucky and grateful I got to see him perform as many times as I did, even sharing a stage with him once or twice. Dexter was the star of our team (and beyond) and will be profoundly missed."

Jenny Waters (Work Clothes, Object Hours)

I moved to Chapel Hill in 1989 and grew up idolizing musicians I'd see around town, like Dexter, who was about ten years my senior. Chapel Hill and Carrboro used to seem like some magical universe back then, where you would be surrounded by ridiculously talented musicians everywhere you'd go. For a girl in 10th grade saving up for my first guitar, this was absolute heaven. To be able to see a talent like Dexter pretty regularly, without even trying that hard- it was absurd. Some local musicians have been written about, some ignored, but Dexter has always been in his own category. Regardless of whatever genre or even instrument he was playing, he was undeniable. He made it look so easy, and you could tell playing wasn't a choice for him. I wonder if you can ever truly capture the magic of someone like that on a recording. So many folks are walking around this week with a heavy heart. Our town lost a true legend. Dexter, thank you for being an inspiration and always asking about Lee and the kids. It takes a special human to have that much talent and still be a sweetheart. Much love to his family.

Anne Litt (Program Director of Music at KCRW)

I first encountered Dexter Romweber on my very first day as a freshman at UNC in 1984. Admittedly, it's possible that it was not my very first day, but the effect his music had on me was so resonant and profound it is forever bound up with my first impressions of Chapel Hill. It was on the corner of Franklin and Columbia Streets, Dex playing some sort of cheap guitar (but very cool to me — I learned later that it was a Sears Silvertone) and his partner, Crow, on drums. They tore through all manner of frantic rockabilly covers and just made a racket. At that moment, whenever it was in September 1984, I knew I had found my place.
Throughout my years at Chapel Hill, I saw them play dozens of times in dozens of clubs, fraternity houses, and, yes, on street corners. When I moved to Los Angeles, I had the privilege of being in the studio when Dex, Crow, and company were recording Lucky Eye in 1998. I remember when they were recording strings for a track called “New York Studio 1959.” The very idea of strings (dreamed up by producers, Scott Litt and Chris Stamey) seemed incongruous for Dex, but the arrangement proved to be transformative adding a texture that not only I’d never heard before from them, but also amplified their music’s yearning, sadness, and romance. Lucky Eye remains among my favorite albums of all time.
Over the years, I’d see Dex and his sister, Sarah, play when they came to LA. After Ruins of Berlin came out in 2009, I learned what fans Cat Power and Neko Case were of his work. One listen to White Blood Cells, or any White Stripes or Black Keys album for that matter, and you immediately understand from whence those artists came. I dare you not to feel a catch in your throat when you hear Dex’s longing on “Love Letters,” his gorgeous collaboration with the great Cat Power.
“I’m not alone in the night, when I could have all the love you write…”
Dex and I are exactly the same age, and that always hits. That first day on the street corner, this didn’t occur to me — Dex seemed like a supernatural being teleported in from another universe and era. He once playfully proposed marriage to my college roommate. She politely declined, but we tell the story to this day. As the true Southern romantic that he was, she was likely one of many whimsical proposals. Dexter Romweber was bigger than life then and always will be to me.
I heard the news about Dex’s passing from my dear friend and colleague Myke Dodge Weiskopf, who said it best when he mused that Dex is likely already busy frightening people off of the cosmic lawn when he's not jamming with Link Wray, Lux Interior, and Johnny Cash.

Freddy Jenkins, (Host of WUNC's Back Porch Music)

Dexter first blazed across my horizon when he was still a teen. I was essentially a general factotum for the band Snatches of Pink - Michael Rank, Andy McMillan and Dex’s sister Sara. This was Dex’s Flat Duo Jets period with drummer Chris “Crow” Smith, and we shared stages and van rides quite often. They were at the height of their powers, and I witnessed some incredible and furiously energetic performances. Alas, the kind of recognition they deserved unfortunately never came - a recurring theme in Dexter’s life. Dex moved on in various musical incarnations ultimately joined by Sara as the Dex Romweber Duo until Sara’s death in 2019. Dex soldiered on but I am not sure he ever got past Sara’s death. Many of us are still wrestling with it. I really admired Dexter’s dedication to his music. It was not an act or a persona. He was never gonna fit into an easily marketable package. He was almost too much of everything - rockabilly, country, blues, jazz, surf, garage and even classical. He was a rocker who could bowl you over, a crooner who could break your heart, and a sensitive pianist who could offer a moving Chopin nocturne. And he was a talented painter as well. Over the years, I’d run into him on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus from time to time. He’d know of a particular room where there was a piano that he could play or a building with a high-ceiling where he could play guitar and sing with a natural reverb. I remember conversations we’d have about songs he’d heard me play on the radio. One that particularly comes to mind is Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words” recorded in 1930. He eventually made his own recording of it with Sara and Jack White. In a different world, Dexter would have achieved the kind of success of Jack White – who, among many others, counted him as an influence. But it was not to be. I often thought that although he lived a life with many travails, Dexter would somehow live forever. Now that he has gone at least his music will.

Brian Burns is the Music Director for WUNC Music, WUNC's AAA music discovery station. He has been working within the local music scene for over a decade. On the weekends you might see him DJing at various spots around the Triangle, or digging through boxes of records. He's also the host of Future Shock on WUNC Music and a contributor to NPR Music. He graduated from UNC’s School of Information and Library Science with an MSLS in 2015.
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