Since the 1990s and 2000s, old-time string band music has enjoyed a resurgence in the United States. But even with hundreds of outfits updating this antiquated sound for a modern musical world hungry for authenticity, none stands out as much as Durham’s Carolina Chocolate Drops. Why? Well, few African-Americans have embraced this supposedly “hillbilly” music. Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons, Hubby Jenkins and Leyla McCalla aren’t simply plying what many might think is a white man’s trade.
Giddens and Flemons met fellow founding Carolina Chocolate Drop Justin Robinson, who left the band two years ago, at the inaugural Black Banjo Gathering in 2005. They studied under the wizened tutelage of Joe Thompson, who learned how to play the fiddle from his grandfather, a former slave, in the 1920s. And the Drops’ five full-length albums, which celebrate the tradition of musicians like Thompson while sprinkling jazz, Celtic folk and even hip-hop into the mix, have won Grammys, topped bluegrass charts and attracted audiences of all ages, races and stylistic predilections. Folio Weekly chatted with Giddens about balancing original and traditional material, recording sessions and live performances, and the past with the future.
Folio Weekly: The Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Florida tour has just three quick dates. Is there any particular reason?
Rhiannon Giddens: Yes, I just gave birth a few weeks ago, so these first three months are pretty light. We’re going to be busy in March, but on the creative side of things. And then another big tour starts in April. But usually we go from January until December. [Laughs.]
F.W.: Speaking of creative work, over the course of five albums, the band has sprinkled only a few originals in with its traditional reinterpretations. Will that change?
R.G.: We’ll always do a few originals — and I’ve definitely been writing a lot myself. Whether that actually makes it into the band remains to be seen, though. We’re figuring out what the next step is for us, but the traditional tunes are always going to have a heavier hand.
F.W.: Has honoring those traditions of old-time African-American string bands always been the No. 1 goal for Carolina Chocolate Drops?
R.G.: Absolutely. We just didn’t know we were going to end up where are. We studied with Joe Thompson and wanted to spread his music and that of other black string band musicians. The fact that people are willing to pay to have us play is really a great bonus. And it’s fabulous that now we’re able to make our living at it.
F.W.: Since you, Dom Clemons and original Drop Justin Robinson attended the inaugural Black Banjo Gathering in 2005, have you noticed more African-American musicians embracing this music?
R.G.: I don’t know if the numbers have actually gone up; that’s hard to say. But we’ve definitely seen a small — if marked — increase in the African-American population of our audience. Hopefully, more people will continue playing the music and picking up the banjo.
F.W.: How did you personally arrive at the banjo? Was it your first musical instrument?
R.G.: No, I went to school for classical music and was an opera singer who also studied Celtic folk and was all over the place. Then, I discovered the banjo after college and fell in love.
F.W.: How hard is it for the Drops to balance the high energy of a live performance with the more subdued atmosphere of a recording studio?
R.G.: It’s hard, but for us, they’re two different things. So we just try to make good recordings and capture the flavor of what we do in our live show, which is where our strength lies. Particularly with our last recording [2012’s “Leaving Eden”], almost everything was tracked live in the same room; we really liked that. We wanted to have that feel of just stepping into the room where we happened to be playing.
F.W.: Beyond the meticulous nature of the recordings, you and the Drops are quite intricate with the research that goes into your songs as well, right?
R.G.: For sure — Dom and are I very into the academic part of it. Dom’s more into who recorded what, when and where, whereas I’m more into the history of what surrounded the music. We’re always reading — him a music biography and me a history. That helps inform the music.
F.W.: Do you think you could ever reach a point where you’ve exhausted the possibilities of paying tribute to the past?
R.G.: I don’t think there’s any day when we say we’re done tapping the past. These guys lived such long, amazing lives and you scratch the surface of the material and there’s so much more, so we’re not worried about running out of inspiration anytime soon. As things keep being discovered, we’ll keep rolling with them.