Release Date: Feb 28, 2012
Record label: Nonesuch
Genre(s): Bluegrass, Country, Folk, Blues, Neo-Traditional Folk, String Bands, Contemporary Country, Neo-Traditionalist Country, Modern Acoustic Blues, Regional Blues, Country Blues, Piedmont Blues
After killing it on "Hit 'Em Up Style" – the cover of Blu Cantrell's 2001 R&B hit that branded its breakout Genuine Negro Jig LP – this mischievous old-time string band might've been tempted to cut a whole bunch of amusing pop covers. But the trio's latest confirms they're more than a novelty machine. Produced by alt-country guru Buddy Miller, Eden grows handsome fruit from a nation's tangled roots: "Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?" turns a 1940 hillbilly yodel by banjo picker Cousin Emmy into a roaring country blues; Rhiannon Giddens veers between Miranda Lambert and Beyoncé on the original "Country Girl"; and "Mahalla" is inspired by a YouTube video of an African guitarist playing slide with a teaspoon in his mouth.
Alan Lomax was a renowned ethnomusicologist who took field recordings of Americans playing their regional folk styles. Many of his recordings in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s focused on black rural music. Some songs were recorded in homes, some in prison, some in the work fields and some in concert halls—altogether, these recordings documented what black music sounded like in the first half of the century and perhaps what shaped rock and roll, modern blues, and other essential American styles.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops, a contemporary string band trio who, under the watchful eye of mentor Joe Thompson, re-created the look, feel, and sound of a 19th century black North Carolina string, fiddle, and jug band ensemble, crafted their first studio recordings into perfect facsimiles of the group's influences. The Drops were always at their best on-stage, however, where the gospel stomp of those mountain rhythms and the kinetic energy the band gave off completed the feel of a living, breathing history lesson. Those old string bands could turn on a dime, and the Chocolate Drops reproduced that art, turning their live sets into a black string band revival show.
The young southern string band follow 2010's Grammy-winning Genuine Negro Jig with an equally appealing grab-bag of antique country, blues, jug band hits and gospel hollers, all given an agreeably downhome production by veteran Buddy Miller. There's a touch of cello on the melancholic title cut, but clacking bones, clucking banjo and sawing fiddle remain their forte, topped with the forceful vocals of classically trained Rhiannon Giddens. She channels Ethel Waters on the 1925 hit "No Man's Mama", growls scarily on "Ruby Are You Mad at Your Man" and goes a cappella and stately on "Pretty Bird".
Carolina Chocolate Drops are a gloriously energetic and adventurous live band, but this set mysteriously fails to demonstrate their range. Which is curious, not just because their last album Genuine Negro Jig did just that, and won them a Grammy, but because this follow-up is produced by that highly inventive musician Buddy Miller. The Drops started out as a trio, providing a rousing reminder that black musicians played an important role in the development of American string band music, then expanded to a four-piece, adding new influences to the revivalism.
It’s not often that the instrument you can’t quite identify on a particular track turns out to be the five-string gourd banjo, but that’s the rhythmic, eclectic world of Carolina Chocolate Drops. The award-winning string band folksters bring a quick step and a soulful effort to their third full-length, Leaving Eden. This is traditional music, sure, but it’s anything but stuffy.
It’s hard to put a finger on what exactly makes Carolina Chocolate Drops’ fourth album so uninteresting—the specific missing ingredient that makes their earnest take on bluegrass sound unremittingly insipid. It might be that very earnestness, which gives the music a sunny disposition, but also makes it come off as cheerfully schlocky. It might be the circumspect dabbling in genres beyond bluegrass, consistently conducted with wariness.
String band sensations stretch the map a little further. Ninian Dunnett 2012 The 93-year-old fiddler Joe Thompson died a week before this album was released. He had been a hero of old-time music in Mebane, North Carolina, and they used to say he was the last of the African-American string band players. And he could likely never have imagined his dusty tradition crossing not just the hills of the local Piedmont region but the world’s wide oceans, until he began to mentor a trio of young enthusiasts.
In recent decades when old-time music has been the beneficiary of a revival, it’s usually been at the hands of mostly white artists like Alison Krauss and Nickel Creek. It’s a genre that’s been often looked upon as the domain of legendary Caucasian performers like Dock Boggs and Jimmie Rodgers despite the fact that African-Americans musicians like Charlie Patton, Blind Blake and Etta Baker were just as important in advancing this particular style of music. While Taj Mahal wound up being the most prominent artist of color to delve into and record mountain music in recent times, it was only a small number of younger musicians like Alvin Youngblood Hart and Corey Harris who followed his lead.