It was only last year, but Boots and Heart 2022 must seem like a lifetime ago for Graham Scott Fleming.
Then, in the midst of a torrential downpour, he was working his way to the front of the main stage, trying to get as close to Shania Twain as possible.
This year, he wasn’t more than four songs into his set on the Front Porch Stage before a severe thunderstorm shut down Burl’s Creek for a little over an hour Saturday afternoon.
He kept his shirt on this time. But beyond that, Fleming feels not that much has changed.
“I’m here as a fan watching – and still this year, as a fan, watching – but last year I’m watching a whole ton of my inspirations and now I get to play with a bunch of my inspirations,” he said. “It’s such a wild feeling. I’ll forever be a fan of these people and of music, of course. But to, you know, show what I got now, it’s a cool feeling, it’s a cool switch.”
Fleming, an Elmvale native, made his Boots and Hearts debut Saturday afternoon, performing first on the Front Porch Stage before heading to the VIP area’s Barn for a quick impromptu set once the gates re-opened and the music was able to continue post-storm.
A busload of people from Elmvale came to cheer on the local performer, but Flemming would have been a stranger to most people at Boots and Hearts this year. That makes putting together a set a delicate practice for he and his band, The Agenda, trying to win over as many folks as they can in a 25-minute stretch.
“I mean 25 minutes, you really have to showcase how well-rounded you are and the best songs that you got,” he said. “We made a set list that we thought we could hit every angle with. Some of my best writing, some of the songs I love to sing and some of the songs that people would know. It’s a quick time and you still want to make an impression, while giving the people who do know you what they want.”
Fleming first hooked up with The Agenda, a collective of Toronto musicians, in 2016 and they’ve been recording and producing his music ever since.
However, it wasn’t until 2020 and the release of his single Better Man that he focused his talents entirely on country music. Before that, he was on Broadway, starring as Charlie in Kinky Boots, among other productions.
Being in the Kinky Boots company meant he was in the orbit of a music legend: Cindy Lauper. Advice on the first day they met is something Fleming keeps with him in the back of his mind every time he writes and performs his music.
“She just always told me to stay in the pocket. I’ll always keep that for sure,” Fleming said. “The first time, she just looked at me in the eyes and said always make sure you’re staying in the pocket of the music, and I think that’s always connected me and grounded me to the stuff that I’m writing now. I’ll never forget that moment.”
What she meant, he explained, was that as an artist he needed to make sure everything remained cohesive and authentic, so that the audience could be brought along on the journey the musician wanted to take.
It’s an important credo to follow as he seeks to further his career and hone his craft as a songwriter.
“The reason we’re able to write songs is because we’re so influenced by other songwriters and other artists,” Fleming said. “I think playing covers is definitely important and I love doing that because it connects me to them and me to the audience as well, with something that’s familiar. But being able to tell the story you wrote or the lyrics I wrote or the song that I wrote and being able to see people sing that back, it’s such a wild feeling.”
It's especially important to be telling his own story now after playing characters in the theatre for as long as he has. And while a return to the theatre may be in the cards in the future, Fleming is keen to keep on the country music stage for the foreseeable future.
Even if those moments get cut short with the threat of a tornado.
“You just enjoy the moment. Especially today. There’s nothing anybody could do. The weather was what it was, but we still know we put on a good show for what we had,” Fleming said. “I just celebrate every moment that I get with these guys because I think it’s a blessing all around. Getting to play any show for me is a win, especially playing at Boots and Hearts. It’s wild.”
Following the rain, mostly muggy conditions met the festival goers at Boots and Hearts, with many sticking to their campsites to avoid the treacherous conditions found in many of the films.
Those who came back into the festival site had a night mostly free of inclement weather and sets from Dallas Smith and Keith Urban on the mainstage and Seaforth and Breland on the Front Porch Stage.
Boots and Hearts finishes Sunday with Tim McGraw closing out the festival.