:: RockyGrass :: July 27 ::
By Brian F. Johnson
In the vast connect-the-dot puzzle book of American music, bringing old ideas and modern techniques together is nothing new. But until recently, going dot-to-dot from Appalachian porch style roots music to modern pop was an unheard-of challenge. Both puzzles were certainly in the book, but it was as if one was at the beginning and the other all the way at the end, and finding common elements was next to impossible.
But when Carolina Chocolate Drops were getting their start, part of spreading their name was playing to school kids, and that relationship forced a change that made connecting those dots an obvious path. “We were going in to schools with fiddles and banjos and the kids, they wanted to jump out of the windows they were so unexcited about what we wanted to do,” said fiddle and banjo player and vocalist Rhiannon Giddens in a recent interview with The Marquee. “We needed something that would appeal to them, that we could say, ‘Look, here’s something from your traditional grab bag of sounds.’”
So, Carolina Chocolate Drops searched through modern pop and came up with the idea to cover the pop/R&B track “Hit ‘Em Up Style (Oops!),” originally recorded by Blu Cantrell. Playing the song on fiddle, cello, banjo and mandolin, while adding elements of hip-hop like beat boxing, the group immediately and forever fused their old-time sound with modern pop influences, and everywhere they took the expanding new sound the response was overwhelming. Porch music now had elements of hip-hop and it sounded as natural as if it had been invented that way more than a century ago.
In 2010, with the cover of “Hit ‘Em Up Style” on their Nonesuch Records debut Genuine Negro Jig, the group took home a Grammy award for Best Traditional Folk Album.
In 2012, with a slightly modified lineup, which includes Giddens, multi-instrumentalists Dom Flemons and Hubby Jenkins, and celloist Leyla McCalla, the band released Leaving Eden, a collection of originals, covers and re-arranged traditional tunes that take their string band roots and twist them into modern songs that are sometimes as close to hip-hop as they are to Appalachia.
Twists and turns aren’t shocking to Giddens, a mother of two, whose career has been as contorted as a roller coaster track. Giddens was trained as an opera singer, and even performed in five operas and carried three main roles. But not long after school at the Oberlin Conservatory, in Ohio, she began to lean more toward the folk world when she bought a “cheap Chinese fiddle” off the wall in a Greensboro, N.C. store. The singer (and now fiddler) had taken a job as a singing hostess at a Macaroni Grill and while it sounds like that could have been a tough time for her, Giddens said that it was exactly what she needed at that moment. “You know, in every aspiring musician’s life there’s a time when you realize that you gotta make this happen, that you have something worth getting out there. Macaroni Grill was that time for me. I got that job to buy my banjo, so I’m grateful for that. I was using the skills I had to take myself to the next period of my life,” she said.
A half dozen years later, Giddens would accept the Grammy with her bandmates.
Earlier this year, the first year since the group’s inception that Carolina Chocolate Drops haven’t released an album, Giddens released a duet record I Know I’ve Been Changed, with her sister Lalenja Harrington. It was a project that they had been working on for several years and with a year focused on touring with Chocolate Drops, Giddens said this was the time to get it out.
Carolina Chocolate Drops have finished a solid spring of touring and will hit several summer festivals while starting to formulate what their next recording will look like. “There’s a lot of other bands out there that do other things, but not that many who do what we do,” said Giddens. “So it’s important to keep that true and honest and that’s what we’ve been trying to do.”
:: Carolina Chocolate Drops ::
:: Denver Botanic Gardens ::
:: (with Elephant Revival) :: July 24 ::
:: RockyGrass :: July 27 ::
Recommended if you Like:
• The Hackensaw Boys
• Pokey LaFarge
• Holy Ghost Tent Revival