Carolina Chocolate Drops member Rhiannon Giddens says there seems to be no end to the amount of vintage music available.
"Once you scratch the surface, it's just astounding," says Giddens. "I'm drowning in it. At the moment I'm in the 1800s and there's just so much!"
The Carolina Chocolate Drops are easily the best-known old-time act in the country. The group formed after a chance meeting at the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, N.C., and visits with octagenarian fiddle great Joe Thompson. The original trio, Giddens, Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson, took a name in honor of 1930s Knoxville string band greats the Tennessee Chocolate Drops and became regional favorites. In 2010, the trio signed with Nonesuch Records and released the album "Genuine Negro Jig." While the group held tight to their old-time delivery, a cover of Blu Cantrell's "Hit 'em Up Style" caught the nation's attention. The group's fifth album, "Leaving Eden," was released in February.
In the past two years, the group's lineup has changed somewhat. Robinson departed the band and multi-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins, cellist Leyla McCalla and beatbox/tambourine player Adam Matta have joined. The group's sound, though, remains consistent.
"A lot of time with bands, and we've watched it happen, they start off traditional and then they start composing and writing stuff and the next album is all new material," says Giddens. "We're not ever gonna be interested in doing that because there's just so much great material out there to mine. It's great to write new tunes. 'Country Girl' is an original that I wrote. 'Leaving Eden,' a friend of mine wrote, but the rest of the album is traditional or covers. That's what we do best."
She says the group is happy with what they're doing, but the members also need to keep themselves interested in the music.
"We don't want to be stuck playing the same version of 'Sourwood Mountain' for the next 25 years. We want to grow, but we want to grow in a way that is gradual and is true to who we are."
One of the group's longtime battles is explaining what old-time music is.
"Lots of times we'll have people say, 'I hate bluegrass, but I love you guys!' And we say, 'Well, we're not bluegrass,'" says Giddens "We still get it in interviews. Old-time music is still hidden. It's not out there in the public. People's idea of banjo could just be Steve Martin — which is bluegrass. Hubby used to play old country blues on the streets of New York and people would come up and say, 'Interesting bluegrass you're playing there!'"
In fact, while the group occasionally performs more recent songs, the sounds that the Carolina Chocolate Drops draw from are almost all earlier than when bluegrass even came about (the 1940s). The banjo style used by the group precedes the flashy roll popularized by bluegrass pioneer Earl Scruggs.
Giddens says she is surprised by some of the things she finds when she's exploring vintage music.
"I was surprised at how funky things were before we think of them as being funky," she says. "There's some music from the 1930s to '50s that is heavily syncopated, very, very funky things that wouldn't sound too out of place in the 1970s if you had the right instrumentation."
The group now performs regularly overseas, where audiences are also catching on.
"The audiences in France this year were much more boisterous than they were two years ago," says Giddens. "I kind of feel like it's because we're building OUR audience."
The group has made a habit of visiting Knoxville just before Christmas. This year, Giddens is also looking forward to a special celebration.
"We always love these homecoming shows — this Southeast run," says Giddens. "Definitely looking forward to getting a break. It's been a long year, but we've had a great one. And I'm looking forward to having this baby! I'm due at the end of the year. That's definitely my big project!"
Carolina Chocolate Drops
When: 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 7
Where: Bijou Theatre
Tickets: $21.50, available at Knoxville Tickets outlets, 865-656-4444 and www.knoxvilletickets.com
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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