What Nashville Might Learn from the Carolina Chocolate Drops

The Carolina Chocolate Drops show us why it's important that country music gets in touch with its real base: rural America and the many gifts that rural America offers.

Carolina Chocolate Drops

Leaving Eden

Label: Nonesuch
US Release Date: 2012-02-28
UK Release Date: 2012-02-27

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.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.