Calling the Carolina Chocolate Drops an "old-time string band" might not be the most accurate description of the trio. After all, they're not that old. And though the music they play is deeply rooted in the traditional string music of the Carolina mountains, they put a subtly modern spin on it. So we're coining a new term, just for the Drops: "young-time string band."
Some clues that they're a young-time string band: Rhiannon Giddens' cover of Blu Cantrell's R&B single "Hit 'em Up Style." Or Justin Robinson's penchant for skinny jeans and colorful sneakers.
"We've always tried to be honest and tried to be ourselves instead of trying to be other people or the perceived idea of people that are from earlier generations," says member Dom Flemons. "We try to represent ourselves as us instead of as people from 100 years ago — that doesn't make sense. We have to be in the present and going toward the future."
And while their feet are firmly in the present, their roots run deep. Joe Thompson, a 91-year-old musician, introduced Flemons to Giddens and Robinson in 2005, and he eventually became their mentor through casual jam sessions. He taught them not only the techniques of playing old time string music, but the history of the genre as well. They learned old songs and became proficient playing everything from the banjo to fiddle to jug to bones to kazoo. The trio couldn't have asked for a better teacher, and this direct connection with a living historical figure is reflected in their authenticity.
"We were all working together and making music happen on a very organic level," Flemons says of working with Thompson. "He doesn't really tell you to do things. He sort of lobs comments, like 'Oh, maybe we hold it back a little bit,' until you've eventually got it. It gave us a basis for playing other songs."
After jamming out with Joe, the trio would head out, taking what they'd learned to make something new.
"Something that is distinctive about this specific generation of full-time performers is that there is a need to go back and reference the older music, but constraints of having to represent it fully like you hear it on the record aren't there," Flemons says. "Bands can do anything they feel like, trying to represent themselves as modern people."
The band's respect for the past is evident not only in the way they talk about Thompson, but in the way they play their music, sharing interesting historical tidbits throughout their performances.
"I find it amazing the way that more Southern people are embracing the older cultures in a different way," Flemons, a Phoenix native, says. "In the South, you're always embracing the thing that came before, but there's a new way that is broader. I feel like there are folks that are really taking the time to be proud of being Southern and embracing some of the stuff that's a little more difficult in the South."
One of the things they're working to do as a group is break the mold of racial stereotypes; after all, string bands are typically all white.
"The way that people perceive black people on a popular culture level is that there aren't many black country people," Flemons says. "And that's the way that it's been for such a long period of time ... Black people in the country that are singing the blues, or they're singing church music, and that's the way that everybody's been taught for years and years. That's the way that our group is opening up the conversation, that it's far more diverse than we give it credit for.
"Distinguishing that we're a black string band and opening that conversation up, that's something that's needed ... so that people know that there is a black contribution and there is a black piece to this music," Flemons adds. "That's something we're very proud of ... The history isn't complete if we don't say that we're a black string band."
But the Drops aren't the only black string band around. Consider the fact that their relationship basically started at the Black Banjo Fest in Boone, N.C. Or just take a gander at this year's Spoleto schedule, which also featured a performance from the Ebony Hillbillies.
"It's pretty innovative that [Spoleto's] going to have two black string bands in one weekend," Flemons says. "That'll be interesting to compare and contrast how different the traditions can be. We're just one band. There's a very vast area in which string band music fits, because it's not a genre-specific music. You have fiddles and banjos, so you tend to get boxed into the bluegrass thing, but you can really fit any kind of music in there."
But as versatile as the music is, it's really quite straightforward.
"There's a need that's grown where people really like simple music," Flemons says. "The popular music that's out there tends to be very artificial ... One of the things that's amazing about folk music is that it is such a natural kind of music. You can't help but love it. No matter how unpolished or rough it is, it's still very beautiful because of the individuality and representation of that person and their culture.
"In America, we're having a lot of conflict, and people are really reaching for stuff like that," he adds. "Just wanting to grab at something that's American or their specific culture that they can embrace."