It's been an eventful year for the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Around the same time the neo-traditional string band learned of their Grammy Award nomination in the Best Traditional Folk Album category for their fourth studio album, Genuine Negro Jig, co-founder Justin Robinson announced his departure from the band. His decision shadowed nearly everything that happened this year, from the recording of their next album to a Grammy win.
"It was a little bittersweet, because by that point we weren't touring with him anymore," says singer/string player Dom Flemons of the win. "Justin was more or less the lead singer in our group. When he left, trying to reorganize the band was something we ran headlong into with recording the new album. All the preparations we'd made to make the recording were with Justin. Everything was already in motion."
Suffice to say, Flemons and fellow co-founder Rhiannon Giddens were caught a little off guard. Robinson had married the year before, and the grind of touring had become too much for him, especially with an increasingly heavy schedule after signing to major label imprint Nonesuch in '09. It marked the end of a very propitious chapter for the Carolina Chocolate Drops, which had seen them grow into one of the most intriguing folk acts on the scene.
The acoustic trio formed in 2005 after meeting at the Black Banjo Gathering at Appalachian State University. They were united by a love of old-timey music and a fascination with African-American contributions to the style. Together they studied under the tutelage of 92-year old fiddler Joe Thompson, learning from him the traditional Piedmont style and repertoire. They incorporated what they learned and gave it a modern sensibility. Their cover of contemporary R&B singer Blu Cantrell's "Hit 'Em Up Style" reflects this collision.
"We try to work on the arrangements so that it doesn't have to sound exactly like the original recording, but I'd like to at least have it possess the quality where you can compare it with the original," Flemons says, explaining his approach to both traditional and newer source material. "One thing that really bothers me is when I hear a song being done in a way that's so out there that it just isn't as interesting. I find myself saying. 'Oh, that's nice, but I'd rather just hear the original.'"
When Robinson left the band, the Chocolate Drops added two new members — multi-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins, who'd worked on Flemons' 2009 solo album American Songster, and beatboxer Adam Matta, who they'd met after working with Brooklyn-based gypsy-punk band Luminescent Orchestrii in 2008. At first, Matta was only a guest performer, but as he continued to tour with them throughout this year, they decided to make him a full-fledged member. They even put his picture in the press photos, only to have him also find the road too taxing leave the band in August. (He still performs with them from time to time.)
"We were all bit devastated by that," Flemons confesses.
After re-arranging their songs to fit Matta, it was back to square one with another new member, cellist Leyla McCalla. "It hasn't turned out too bad because Leyla's a classically trained cellist, so she's a quick study and has learned the tunes really quickly. She's been with us for about two months or so, and she's just been doing phenomenal."
Robinson's departure and the membership turnover manifested itself in their attempts to record their next album with producer Buddy Miller (Allison Moorer, Solomon Burke). It took two separate recording sessions and a week of earnest woodshedding in Nashville to pen and polish enough material. Even so, much of the album was written in the studio. It includes a couple more jigs, a cover of Run DMC's "You Be Illin'," and "Mahalia," written by South African spoon slide guitarist Hannes Coetzee, who Flemons first saw on YouTube.
Besides the new album, 2011 brought a number of other long-awaited projects to culmination. Chief among these was the release of their collaborative four-song EP with Luminescent Orchestrii. The two acts met at 2007's Folk Alliance Conference in Memphis and hit it off so well that they decided to record together. But because the Chocolate Drops wanted to release their own version of "Hit 'Em Up Style" (which appears on Genuine Negro Jig) before the EP version, the recordings languished until Nonesuch put it out in January.
Flemons and the band also appeared in Marc Fields' documentary Give Me the Banjo. Fields had been holding out to make a multi-part Ken Burns-style doc but finally took the 90-minutes PBS offered him and the piece ran the first week in November. That exact moment, Giddens and Flemons were participating in a week-long theatrical performance of Keep a Song in Your Soul: The Black Roots of Vaudeville at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. The idea first gestated after meeting ragtime composer/McArthur Genius Grant winner Reginald Robinson at Old Town in 2008 and grew from there.
"The roots of ragtime came from these piano composers hearing string bands, knowing that sound and applying it to European piano sounds," Flemons explains. "The idea at first was just a presentation of songs ... It ended up growing into was a kind of pre-Oklahoma!-style musical where the story isn't too essential, it just gets you from song to song. So we had these narrations [written by Giddens' sister Leilani] that framed it within the historical and emotional journey of black people during the Great Migration [of African Americans in the early 1900s]."
It's been a transformational year for the Chocolate Drops, to say the least. But Flemons is looking forward to hearing audiences' response to both the forthcoming album, due early next year, and their new sound. "We have a different sound, but at the same time it's the same notion around making the music," he says. "In that way, it will have the same flavor, but we've got a different and unique sound that's grown from us having new members and shifting where the music sits."