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'Inspiring for everyone': Rock legend remembered by Carrboro music scene

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Courtesy of the D. Kent Thompson Collection #20479, Southern Folklife Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

A Facebook post on Feb. 16 announcing the death of Dexter Romweber, founder of the music duo Flat Duo Jets, currently has over a thousand comments by fans, local Chapel Hill music figures and beyond, as they come to pay their respects. 

Romweber, widely considered a legend of the Chapel Hill music scene, died from cardiac arrest at 57.

“You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who's been here for more than 10 years, playing in the scene, who didn't think of Dex as just this icon,” Django Haskins, member of the band The Old Ceremony and friend of Romweber, said.

Romweber’s first foray into music was during his childhood, in a band with his sister and a friend. He moved to Chapel Hill around the same time, and at 17 he formed Flat Duo Jets with Chris “Crow” Smith in 1983. 

The Jets blended and warped genres, playing in a unique gray area of sound between blues, rockabilly, hillbilly and garage. As lead vocalist and guitarist, Romweber was center stage with an unrestrained performance style, and Chapel Hill was quick to fall into his orbit.

Traditional genre bounds never seemed to fit him. 

“He basically got his own category,” Haskins said. “He wasn't in the rockabilly scene, you know, he was Dex, and there was a rockabilly scene.”

The Flat Duo Jets split in the late '90s, and Romweber moved on to solo projects like the album “Blues That Defy My Soul.” Later, he and his sister, Sara, played in a band called Dex Romweber Duo.

Romweber used to busk around Chapel Hill frequently, taking his frenzied performances to the street, David Menconi, a music critic and journalist, said. Menconi has written about and known Romweber for decades.

“He always just lived very hand to mouth with not much coming in, and just had to keep playing music because it's all he could do,” Menconi said. “So that integrity about the pursuit of his art, I think, was an inspiring example for everyone.”

Romweber’s sound was infectious, influencing the likes of indie rock artists Neko Case, The Black Keys and Jack White of The White Stripes.

Although his influence was widespread, many of those who took inspiration surpassed him in popularity. 

John Howie, Jr., musician and friend of Romweber, said that Romweber was difficult to market, but artists like him are vital to the music industry. Many of today’s most successful artists would not exist without people like Romweber, who never really made it big, Howie said. 

Romweber always played passionately, Howie said, even if he had smaller audiences that frustrated him.

“I would hope that his influence would continue to exist, and in a way that just inspires people to just kind of do their own thing,” he said.

An artist in many more ways than one, Romweber played classical piano, and even released an album of his work, titled simply, “Piano.” He was also a painter, and several people collected his work, according to Menconi, who has a painting of his own. 

Along with his wide interest in music, Romweber was interested in literature and film, once requesting to borrow "Moby-Dick" to read while on tour, Menconi said.

In 2023, he released his final album, “Good Thing Goin',” dedicated to the memory of his sister Sara, who died in 2019 of cancer. In the same year, he lost two of his brothers, Joe and Luke, and last year, Romweber lost his mother. 

“His life was not easy,” Menconi said. “It was very difficult, and what he lived through the last five years was just unbearable and I don't think he could take it. His sister said he died of a broken heart, and I kind of think that's true.”

In the wake of Romweber’s death, hundreds of supporters, admirers and devotees expressed condolences and shared their memories of the late artist. 

Jack White wrote a eulogy to Romweber on Instagram and Derek Powers, manager of Cat’s Cradle, shared a lengthy tribute to him on Facebook. A memorial concert is set to be held in the Haw River Ballroom in Saxapahaw on April 7.

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“I think people will continue telling Dexter Romweber stories around here — elsewhere too, but around here especially — for the rest of my life, certainly,” Menconi said.

@sydneybrainard

@dthlifestyle | lifestyle@dailytarheel.com