Whether it’s western swing, gypsy jazz, or delta blues, one can always find revivalists striving to keep music that’s long since fallen from popular favor alive. Most do so through loving replication, but that approach assumes the music has little future.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops approach old-time, string-band music as something very much alive indeed. Two originals, a Tom Waits cover (“Trampled Rose”) and an irresistible re-working of Blu Cantrell’s recent “Hit ‘Em Up Style” fit seamlessly into a primarily traditional program. And it’s all rendered with irrepressible enthusiasm and energy that leaves no question this is music very much for the here and now.
String-band music is folk music in the purest sense, with banjo and fiddle being the primary instrumentation. There’s rudimentary percussion as well, usually nothing more complex than spoons, hand drums, or tapping feet. It’s music that developed in pockets, with any and all influences cheerfully incorporated. It’s not fancy, but these are the threads that eventually formed the tapestry of American music.
Rhiannon Giddens, Justin Robinson, and Dom Flemons are all accomplished banjo players, trained in the Piedmont tradition. Robinson is the group’s main fiddler, while Giddens brings a classical background and Celtic influence to proceedings. (She’s responsible for the stunning a cappella reading of “Reynadine,” a tune still redolent of the briny sea so recently crossed). Blues and hokum abound, with “Your Baby Ain’t Sweet Like Mine” and Memphis Minnie’s “Why Don’t You Do Right” serving as prime examples. Traditional tunes like “Cornbread and Butterbeans” and “Sandy Boys” are the type passed down from generation to generation, their origins lost to time, but here the sheer exuberance with which they’re delivered keeps them fresh. Robinson’s almost dirge-like “Kissin’ And Cussin’” is the disc’s only misstep, a not-terribly strong song that drags the pacing down a bit.
With production by Joe Henry, the sound is just right, with a clarity to the vocals and a rattling, raucous, room-filling sound from the percussion that gives the recording a visceral presence.
String-band music may sound primitive beside today’s processed, computer-generated pop. But the Carolina Chocolate Drops are neither revivalists nor preservationists. They inhabit this stuff, and perform it with a vitality that renders it far more compelling than mechanized beats. It’s music from a time when handmade was the only way music was made, and reminds us that heart and soul are still what music is all about.