The Carolina Chocolate Drops appeared seemingly from the ether, a band of 20-something African-American kids from North Carolina who scored a Grammy nomination (and win) for Best Traditional Folk Album for their breakout LP, Genuine Negro Jig, in 2011. They were the oddest of birds in a Grammy scene filled with teen pop sensations and a world where the majority of African-American artists were flying their flags for R&B and hip-hop. To hear young black artists playing deeply traditional Appalachian string music is indeed strange in concept… until you hear it for yourself. The trio relayed these musical relics, unearthed with such precise care, in a way that makes them completely resonant and relevant. I had a chance to speak with Rhiannon Giddens, the lone remaining original Chocolate Drop, in advance of their Valentine’s Day show at Tipitina’s. We chatted about the band’s new members and what that means for the trajectory of the Chocolate Drops as an entity, as well as how she balances the push and pull of band life vs. family life and—of course—cornbread.
You lost a founding member [Dom Flemons] this year to a solo career. But you’ve added two new talented members [Rowan Corbett and Malcolm Parson] and the group is starting to feel like an artists’ collective of sorts. Tell me about how the group identity is morphing with these lineup changes.
Rhiannon Giddens: It’s really exciting. When we first started, it was a trio and the first original member to leave—Justin Robinson—when he left, I just couldn’t imagine the band as anything but the three of us. But Dom said, “I think we can do this; let’s just see what other amazing talent is out there and let’s keep it going.” It’s more than just a band, you know? When we brought in Hubby [Jenkins], that was a huge moment, because it was then that I realized that he can learn some of the Joe Thompson tunes through us and that he knows all these other things he can bring to us. We were able to do different songs that we couldn’t do before. Then we brought Leyla [McCalla] in on the cello and that opened us up even more. With the departure of Dom and Leyla—though she was only with us for a while and we always knew she was focused on her solo career—everybody has brought some amazing songs and points of view which have expanded the band. I just feel like everybody is richer because of it. The people who traveled with us for a while had a great experience and we were enriched by it—I think everybody wins; that’s the way we look at it. Now we’ve got a fantastic cellist from New Orleans [Parson] and another North Carolinian [Corbett], who plays [a] bodhran (which we’ve never had before, so that will be really cool), along with all the other stuff that they bring. It’s exciting. Musically, there will be changes just like there were the first time the band changed lineups, but the songs will retain the things about them that people really enjoy. We won’t suddenly be doing, oh I don’t know, R&B Irish music or something.
You brought a new little Chocolate Drop into the world just over a year ago. It’s been said over and over again that women can do anything, but how do you personally strike the balance between caring for your kids, touring, recording etc.? Your plate seems very full.
It is very full and I wouldn’t be able to do it without support. This was actually my second little Drop, as my daughter is four and a half years old, so we’ve been through it before, which makes it a little bit easier—although now it’s a little harder in a way because there are two of them! But my husband is amazing and everybody on the team has been very, very supportive and helpful. I’ve been out here in California recording and my tour manager was actually taking care of the baby.
Are you the only band member with children?
I am. So they’re really kind of the band’s children. [laughs] Everybody’s been really great and they’ve learned a lot. Leyla has said that when she has a kid, she will have learned so much from being with us while I was pregnant and then the first year of his life, so I feel great that my family life has enriched my band life. Band life is really kind of an artificial, weird thing because you spend time with these people all the time—more than you do with your own family—and having kids along kind of humanizes it. Just to remind you that, oh yeah, we’re human and there’s more to life than getting that note right.
Speaking of your husband—who is Irish—one of your many side projects is a duet with him that focuses on Irish dance music. That made me wonder what came first: the relationship or the musical partnership?
Oh definitely the relationship. When we met, he was into prog rock and stuff like that. He actually wasn’t even into folk music. He started learning how to tune pianos and he just realized “Oh yeah, I love acoustic music; I had forgotten how good acoustic sound is.” So he started playing the guitar again and I was like “Hey, let’s play some tunes!” and the bug bit him. And that was it, you know? So it’s been really great to work on that with him. Also, he speaks Gaelic to our kids and he’s been really exploring the Gaelic music part of his heritage. So that’s been really cool to watch, too.
On your last record, Leaving Eden, you delved into a lot of areas of historically African-American music, including string-based folk, blues and gospel/spirituals. There was even some beatboxing the last time you played live here. What can we expect the live show to be like under this new lineup?
We’re still finding ourselves as a new quartet, so we’ve got some new things that we’ve been getting together and we’ve been doing our renditions of Chocolate Drop staples like “Cornbread & Butterbeans” and things like that. It will be a nice mixture. Each new member brings not only their instrumentation, but their own sort of take on this music and their own interests and influences. So we’ll be mining that, but it will obviously take time to find its way to the stage. I know that the show will be awesome and entertaining and I’m really proud of what we’ve put together so far, and we’ll also see what the audience is digging. It’s always kind of a never- ending process.
You guys are doing work to preserve a kind of music that is largely forgotten outside of the American South. Do you plan to continue mining that vast back catalog of field songs and spirituals and putting your own spin on them, or do you hope in the future to focus more on original compositions inspired by that sound?
You know, a little bit of both. Mostly mining and a little bit of original. There’s just so much amazing material out there—not just African-American music from North Carolina, but there’s the whole black diaspora to look at, all over this country, in the Caribbean, South America. There’s such a rich tradition that it’s kind of endless, so there’s plenty of material and I’m always inspired by finding new things. And all the guys are finding and bringing their own thoughts about that, too. But then I’ve really been reading a lot of history and really probing into the history of us as a people and I’ve been inspired to write new things and reimagine folk songs, so there’s going to be a little bit of that too. We’ll always be more on the “cover” side, but just because there is so much great existing music that needs to be heard. But I think that it’s nice to get a new perspective on old themes, so you should be seeing a little bit of that coming out as well. I’ve been performing a few in the show and people seem to be really digging them, so we’ll just pepper that in. But we’re pretty firm on who we are. You know, every other band in the world does original material, but we’re just so happy to be serving these songs.
I’ve heard it said that you guys tackle “standard” folk tunes, but I don’t find anything “standard” about most of what you do, being that your versions are often the only exposure many people will have to these songs. In my mind, “standard” equates with “done to death,” but I don’t feel like the classification fits here. What would you even call the types of songs you cover?
We just call them traditional songs. There are so many songs where you don’t even know who wrote them— they just kind of survived the human condition and obviously spoke to people, so we kept doing them. And they need to be heard. It’s important for people to continue to get them out there, because it’s amazing that when you realize how they speak to modern people, you see how much of history just continues to repeat itself and how we can really sympathize with people from 200 years ago because, in a lot of ways, we’re dealing with the same stuff.
You have a number of side projects and one-offs going on at any given time. Do you ever find all that organization and coordination to be stressful, or is it enriching to have these different outlets for all the facets of yourself ?
It’s been really great, you know? I really need that because we were really focused on the band for a while—and we still are—but it’s just nice to break out of that a little bit and be in a different situation. I came to realize some things about some of our songs when I was doing the duo tour with Leyla that I wouldn’t have been able to realize in the band situation because there’s just so much more freedom in that small group. I feel like it’s enriching because I can take those things that I learned there and bring them back to the band, and that just enriches the band experience. As long as there’s not too many—I don’t want to get spread too thin—if I choose the project judiciously, they can only enhance the band experience for me.
So you guys are an acoustic outfit reliant mostly on strings and percussion. New Orleans is a city rich with this mystique of old jazz, which was built mostly on the backs of African-American horn players. It’s a different side—a bit further down the road—of the story you’re telling. Have you guys ever considered folding in brass? Or has it just never been brought to the table?
I think someday that would be great. I’d like to get this quartet established and get our sound as it’s going to be—and I’m kind of hoping this is going to be it for the foreseeable future, barring any surprises. Then I would like to experiment with that a little bit. There is a lot we can bring in that still will serve the sound. Collaborations and such. Like this year, we’re going to start bringing in some dancers for some of the shows to do some clogging and other types of dance. We’re going to start expanding the show a little bit to make it more of a visual experience as well, because I dance a little bit and people seem to really like it. So collaborating with other people, like a horn player—I could definitely see that. We’ve done a little bit with a clarinetist that we know and a trombone player, so I look forward to doing more of that, definitely, in the future.
I was raised in rural Alabama and while I heard rumblings of the kind of music you guys cover, it wasn’t exactly popular in the 1980s, so it wasn’t really present in my childhood. But I find as I get older that I am digging in the musical tradition of my home and I am finding great joy in the rediscovery of the past I didn’t see when I was there. Was the music you are so invested in now really present during your childhood, or has it come back to you in more of an academic sense like that?
I had bits and pieces. I heard a lot of revival folk music and bluegrass growing up—stuff more from the ‘50s and onward. I really didn’t hear a lot of that deep roots stuff until after college when I started hearing the reissues on CDs and going to contra-dances and hearing a bunch of old time music, but I think that hearing that other stuff kind of primed the pump. I think if I’d come from strictly a pop background, I don’t know if I would’ve heard that and liked it, or wanted to hear more. I think I definitely was prepared for it in a good way with that early music. I don’t think you have to know the roots music growing up, but I think you have to have some sort of window into it to appreciate it. And that window can come from lots of different areas. That’s the thing about American roots music—it splintered off into so many genres that you can come into it in lots of different ways.
In your song “Country Girl,” you write and sing about life in the South and declare it as unanimously preferable to everywhere on earth. I imagine by this point that you have truly experienced many places around the world and you must’ve had such wonderful moments. What to you, is the core reason you will always come home to roost in the American South?
Part of it boils down to: it’s what I know. It’s what I grew up around. Yes, we have a lot of history, but so does everybody. Everybody’s got skeletons in their closet; everybody’s got those horrible pieces of the past that they’d rather forget about. But you kind of have to make a stand. If everyone just says “Well, horrible things happened here—I’m leaving,” then that’s no good. Part of me just wants to be there—to be the change I want to see in the world. And I want to do that at home. There are so many great things about the South—the warmth of the people and the food… All of those things, I just identify with them so strongly that I don’t want to let them go and I don’t want anyone else to co-opt them and speak for me. But I feel like I can speak better if I’m actually there.
Last question. Very important litmus test for a Southerner. Cornbread: sugar or no sugar?
NO. Sugar in the tea, not in the cornbread.
Carolina Chocolate Drops play Tipitina’s on Valentine’s night, Friday February 14th with opener Luke Winslow King. For more info, visit carolinachocolatedrops.com