What Nashville Might Learn from the Carolina Chocolate Drops

Carolina Chocolate Drops
Leaving Eden

The latest release from Carolina Chocolate Drops, Leaving Eden, isn’t just one of the best American/roots albums of 2012, it’s also one of the most important. The North Carolina outfit has proven, since its 2005 inception, that it’s not just one of the best bands working in the roots/country tradition, it’s also one of the most important.

Country music is the sound of the rural American South, first played by the same hands that built the region’s expansive mansions, the hands that picked and planted its cotton and tobacco, that raised its children, that taught its traditions to generation after generation. It’s the music danced to by the feet that walked and ran the short but vast distances that divided the black and white worlds of the south during slavery, segregation, and beyond.

That the African American experience has been underrepresented in country music is no secret, the music written, interpreted, and performed by Carolina Chocolate Drops seeks in part to correct this and, in the last few years, the group has been moving toward that goal swimmingly.

The group’s founding members––Rhiannon Giddens, Don Flemons, and Justin Robinson––met at the 2005 Black Banjo Gathering at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. The three met mentor Joe Thompson, an acclaimed fiddler who invited the Giddens, Flemons, and Robinson to his house for weekly jam sessions during which he introduced them to a wide repertoire of songs, including several numbers that originated in minstrel sows––that tradition which saw white performers don blackface and imitate the string band music that was first performed by African American string bands.

One of the most fertile fields for string bands was North Carolina, particularly the Piedmont region, an area also known for its contributions to the blues. Banjo and fiddle are essential components of string band music with the guitar a relative latecomer, only really entering the picture at the turn of the last century. Based on complex African rhythms and haunting European melodies string band music is most closely tied to bluegrass, a tradition that is perhaps the most recognizable for contemporary listeners.

The group’s appreciation for both European and American sounds is evident on Colored Aristocracy, the 2008 release by Sankofa Strings, a group that featured Flemons and Giddens and which Giddens has described as “more of a blues and jazz group”. That said, the country elements find firm footing there, such as in the high lonesome fiddle lines of “Likes Likker Better Than Me”, the title track, and “Banjo Pickin’ Girl/Cluck Ol’ Hen”.

What’s also evident there, as it is on Carolina Chocolate Drops records, is that none of this is about nostalgia––that most fatal disease––it’s about the reclamation of history, the survival of tradition, and the reconciliation of the past with the present. This is perhaps best exemplified via Giddens’ poem “Banjo Dream” in which she addresses the African origins of the banjo––“gourd song”––and its evolution, in which she addresses how it, in her dreams and, clearly in her waking hours, walks side-by-side with hip-hop and other music of the present. She also finds time to plant a seed for the future in which she imagines string bands sprouting up on inner city street corners the way that tobacco plants spring forth in the fertile North Carolina soil.

Title track is worthy of further exploration for a variety of reasons, not least of which is its tie with black history. The phrase “colored aristocracy” dates to at least the mid-nineteenth century when it was used as the title of a book written about the black elite in St. Louis. It was later the title of an 1899 cakewalk song, then a 1936 tune popularized by The Rich Family. The Sankofa Strings version was, according to material accompanying the release, a harkening “back to days of hardship, pride in ourselves and hope for better times to come”, arguably a mission statement of sorts for the record itself.

Doubtless celebration is a word that springs to mind when thinking of Carolina Chocolate Drops and the group’s late 2006 release Dona Got A Ramblin’ Mind, recorded in just two days and featuring 16 tracks, perhaps best exemplifies this. From the opening “Starry Crown” through the titular track to “Ol’ Corn Likker” and even through “Dixie” and “Tom Dula”, the collective clearly seized the perfect moment for its debut. Moreover, it seized an opportunity to reinvigorate, rediscover, and reexamine songs from a bygone era for an audience that probably didn’t know that it had missed any of it but would thereafter be sad to see any of it go.

These early releases are available on the Music Maker label; the Music Maker Relief Foundation seeks to preserve the musical traditions of the south and to support the musicians who made––and continue to make––that music. Based in North Carolina, the organization has existed since 1994.

Absent from Dona and any subsequent Carolina Chocolate Drops release is the sense of irony that too often pervades neo-hokum and neo-bluegrass bands. A certain portion of those acts can’t resist migrating sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll to sex, drugs, and bluegrass, nor can they seem to overcome the implicit shame they feel for playing music that was more popular in the era during which their grandparents and great-grandparents roamed than today. There’s nothing shameful in playing the music of the past––whatever that actually means––and the recognition that great music is timeless is one this band’s greatest strengths. So too is the universality of the themes tackled not only in the traditional material but in the original material that has made its way into the band’s repertoire.

That confidence is increasingly evident on subsequent releases such as 2008’s Heritage, which compiles live and studio recordings, and the following year’s live recording with mentor Joe Thompson. Although each of those recordings has its merits––even the occasionally tentative Colored Aristocracy––the band’s true breakthrough came via 2010’s Genuine Negro Jig. Produced by Joe Henry (Solomon Burke, Loudon Wainwright III) the record also marked the band’s debut on the Nonesuch label and won a 2010 Grammy award for Best Traditional Folk album.

The material is varied––from the Kansas Joe McCoy piece “Why Don’t You Do Right” (sometimes performed by traditional acts under the name “Weed Smoker’s Dream”) to the Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan-penned “Trampled Rose” to Justin Robinson’s original “Kissin’ and Cussin’”, but the overall mission of the record doesn’t differ from previous releases. The group pays tribute to Piedmont guitarist Etta Baker (Taj Mahal recorded with Baker in 2004, two years before her death at the age of 93) via her “Peace Behind The Bridge”, Charlie Jackson’s “Your Baby Ain’t Sweet Like Mine” (easily one of the band’s best recordings to date) and, perhaps somewhat surprisingly (or not) “Hit ‘Em Up Style”. Written by Dallas Austin the 2001 hit for Blu Cantrell revisits lyrical themes that connect with the group’s more traditional choices––an unfaithful man who must suffer at the hands of the woman he’s wronged––but is also in tune with themes found in the larger blues and country tradition. Moreover, the classically trained Giddens finds the eerie European qualities of the melody the same way she does with the traditional piece “Reynadine” (which is undoubtedly one of her best recorded performances to date).

Some will no doubt find comparisons between Giddens’ performance and Sandy Denny’s on the 1969 Fairport Convention album Liege and Lief where it appears under the name “Reynardine”––a true testament to Giddens’ power as a vocalist and interpreter.

Although the resulting parallels were perhaps unintentional the choice of “Reynadine” proves an interesting one because of its association with Fairport Convention. Here we have an American band determined to probe the traditions of music from its homeland while remaining relevant to contemporary audiences performing a track recorded by an English band determined to do the same some 40 years earlier. One might further argue that the Carolina Chocolate Drops are really the first band from North America to do for traditional American music what Fairport Convention did for traditional English music.

For as often as contemporary country artists like to name check the greats––see Kenny Chesney’s “Feel Like A Rock Star” (Why would a country artist want to feel like a rock star anyway?)––one has difficulty calling to mind anyone with an ear for tradition on par with what Carolina Chocolate Drops consistently demonstrate.

Paired with producer and fellow traditionalist Buddy Miller for this year’s Leaving Eden the slightly revamped Chocolate Drops (Robinson has left), the group shows no signs for tempering its ambitions for the sake of commercial acceptance. While some would see the addition of beat boxer Adam Matta as a concession to more contemporary tastes, his presence is a reverent percussive touch that only deepens the sense of tradition evident all along.

Instead of creating a disconnect in Giddens’ celebratory “Country Girl” Matta’s work adds an insistency to the author’s celebration of the rural life in the 21st century. Moreover, her take on the Ethel Waters classic “No Man’s Mama” is not only perfect fodder for country music––divorce––it’s evidence of another dimension often overlooked in the context of this band but in traditional music as well, the presence of a feminist consciousness. This isn’t the same line of thinking as in “Fist City” (wherein the speaker threatens violence in order to protect a relationship that’s probably not worth saving) but instead a celebration of female independence and one that’s not played with contemporary country’s sense of sensationalism nor for laughs.

Two other performances from Giddens stand out on Leaving Eden, namely the title song, which was written by the vocalist’s friend Laurelynn Dossett and which also carries a timelessness within its boundaries. Giddens’ performance is seemingly effortless and the result is a track that stands alongside classic material such as Richard and Linda Thompson’s “Dimming Of The Day”. The other, a similarly powerful reading of the Hazel Dickens song “Pretty Bird” is but one suggestion that Carolina Chocolate Drops are on the way to a second Grammy.

Aside from being an excellent contemporary American band, Carolina Chocolate Drops raise a number of questions not just about American country music––that music rooted in the rural, even in the “old, weird America”––but about tradition as presented in popular music.

Giddens has voiced frustration that far too people are aware of the African American string band tradition as well as a general ignorance of string band music in the Piedmont region. Perhaps the formation and apparent rising popularity of Carolina Chocolate Drops will not just encourage a generation of African Americans to embrace the string band tradition but will encourage more explorations of regional American music and ethnic variations within those regions.

Beyond that, perhaps it will also raise further questions about the lack of major African American artists in country music and why country it seems more apt to refer to contemporary country as the music of suburban––not rural––America. Music naturally evolves to match changing tastes and climates and there are ebbs and flows of interest in styles and genres brought on by a series of circumstances. The minstrel songs Carolina Chocolate Drops learned very early on no doubt fell from favor as questions and attitudes about race evolved; but hearing those songs reclaimed as they have been in the short years that Carolina Chocolate Drops have been recording is an important reminder of the unpredictability of the past.

What, then, might the future of country music look like if it began to fully embrace the multitudes its name once promised; the tired, huddled masses who still live out there where cell phone signals are weak, incomes low, and memory––particularly as it relates to memories of bygone eras––remains strong and eager to find its way into the future? These are all things we might learn from Carolina Chocolate Drops; things that might not just shape the future but save it, as well.

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