“It’s a fusion,” says Dom Flemons. He plays the 4-string banjo, guitar, harmonica, kazoo, snare drums, bones and quills, and he’s one of the founding members of folk/roots trio Carolina Chocolate Drops. He’s addressing the notion of making old things new, preserving legacy and creating a contemporary realm for his group’s music instead of merely replicating what was.
“We need a vocabulary,” he continues, “because there are limits to the established definitions. It’s not just what was. When people in a contemporary time play it, they bring this time to it. Whenever we pick a tune, we actively want to play it, to bring something fresh, too. Like doing a Shakespeare play, which is good material, but it’s what the players do with it that makes it special. It’s how it’s interpreted, and we’d like to be a beacon to put a little bit of light on this music.”
The Chocolate Drops met at the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, North Carolina in 2005 and came away determined to explore this lost link of American music. Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson—who has since left the band and been replaced by Adam Matta and Hubby Jackson—decided to exhume the indigenous North and South Carolina’s Piedmont sound, notably made by Afro-American fiddler Joe Thompson, who would go on to record an album with them in 2009.
Their vitality with which they pursued their curiosity captured people’s attention. They were one of the hits of Jazz Fest when they made their debut in the Blues Tent in 2008, and they topped the Bluegrass charts and saw the Top 10 of the Folk charts with their Grammy-winning major label debut Genuine Negro Jig. Blu Cantrell’s “Hit’em Up Style,” Tom Waits’ “Tramped Rose” got attention for their startling yet appropriate transformations into the string band style, but the album and band are defined by the vivaciousness that tempers their playing, their singing and their song selection. Rhiannon Giddens could almost be the Lauryn Hill of the crunchy Americana movement. Strong, stand-up and a little feisty. She sounds like a back-to-nature queen of whole living on her “Country Girl” from this year’s Leaving Eden, but that’s not the point the group wants to make.
“There’s definitely a notion to create an awareness of this music, a historical notion, but we don’t want that to get in the way of being entertaining, to not let it get to studious,” Flemons says. “We know a lot of people have never heard anything like this before. There’s a lot of power and joy that comes from out of this music, whether you’re a professional or an amateur, and that’s what we want.”
Merging contemporary beats and sensibilities with dry banjo sounds is just the beginning. The group draws from whatever wells make sense in expanding the music—jazz, blues, folk, country. For Leaving Eden, they enlisted guitarist Buddy Miller as producer, someone whose work with Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris, Robert Plant’s Band of Joy and the late Solomon Burke shows a talent for making music with modern complexity without sacrificing the grounding quality of tradition. On Leaving Eden, Miller makes everything brighter, live-er and somehow more immediate. “Besides his reputation, he mentioned he’d played the guitar solo on a track from Solomon’s record in that very room we were meeting in. That was a huge signifier.”
The Carolina Chocolate Drops started out playing for mostly white audiences interested in bluegrass and old time music, people who were “middle-aged or older.” Time, their excellence and their exuberance have brought them to the jam band, roots and Americana nation without sacrificing anything meaningful.
“If you start with something like ‘RiRo’s House’—the first track on Leaving Eden—the fife and the drum set the tone,” Flemons says. “But it’s completely fresh while keeping the main focus on the breakdowns. There’s bits of blues, jazz and country—which aren’t obvious, but they’re there.
“That’s our focus: to come off natural rather than contrived. You can be singing a bunch of stuff or playing a bunch of notes, but it doesn’t feel right. It’s about the feel.”
It’s about a lot of things, but always it comes down to music being tantamount, and it’s the reason the group is delighted to be returning to Jazz Fest. “Listening to the music of New Orleans, you get a broad idea of how jazz was born,” Flemons says enthusiastically. “I love the way they incorporate so many styles, without even seeming to try to. It’s just in the air. There is no place like it, the happiness of the music and the playing.
“And the way the whole town lights up with music? I feel like there’s the same kind of energy and mentality that we’re trying to create. There’s more and more of us out there. I don’t say it’s us; I’m just glad to see the people respond to music.”
The Carolina Chocolate Drops play Jazz Fest on Saturday, April 28 at 4:20 p.m. on the Sheraton New Orleans Fais Do-Do Stage.