When you talk about what we'd call hillbilly music -- fiddle, jug, banjo, and other like instruments — the immediate association one makes is with the hardscrabble farmers of the Appalachians in Tennessee. You think of poor white people singing the old Irish and Scottish folk tunes they changed to suit their environment and temperament. The furthest thing from your mind is going to be young black musicians.
Yet if you think about it, the Carolina Chocolate Drops are not as much of an anomaly as you'd first think with their old time banjo and fiddle tunes. The thing about the whole country blues tradition -- and you realize the most logical explanation is it had its roots in the music of the hills -- was there were black people singing the music at one time.
One simply needs to remember there were slaves in the Carolinas and black people would have been exposed to that music much as their counterparts in the Deep South were to the spirituals of their masters for it to make sense. But it still comes as a shock to see and hear three young black musicians playing the music of the Tennessee Valley. But there they are: Rhiannon Giddens on banjo, fiddle, and voice; Justin Robinson, fiddle and voice; and Dom Flemmons, guitar, banjo, jug, harmonica, snare, and voice, belting out the tunes you'd hear from any string band.
Of course, the other thing to remember is the banjo was introduced to North America by slaves from Africa, so it shouldn't be considered such an oddity. But it is to our contemporary eyes and minds that have established for us how things are supposed to be. That there has been little or no interest in this type of music, except as a historical oddity, has also meant it's been kept out of the public eye for quite some time as well.
The North Carolina Piedmont style of playing they represent hasn't had many proponents recently, so they are picking up the threads of something that has been long ago put down except for a few old time musicians who have kept the music alive. It was in April of 2005, at the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, North Carolina, that the three members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops met and discovered they shared a common passion for this old time music.
They attached themselves to an elderly fiddle player, Joe Thompson, and spent Thursday nights at his home learning the ins and outs of their new craft. In two days, last April, the 11th and 12th, only a year after they first met, they entered a studio to make their first recording Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind, a collection of traditional songs that range from the gospel themed, "Starry Crown," to the more secular, "Ol' Corn Likker".