Last February, the Carolina Chocolate Drops did something they've never done before. They released Leaving Eden, the first album that founding members Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons have have made without original bandmate Justin Robinson. Although the Drops have been hitting the road pretty hard since their formation in 2005, Robinson never enjoyed touring.
Giddens, Flemons, and Robinson first met in 2005 at the Black Banjo Gathering at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, where they discovered that they had similar interests in old-timey roots music. Eventually, they began studying under Joe Thompson, the last in a line of African-American fiddlers from the North Carolina hills. The three of them spent every Thursday with Thompson, then in his mid-80s, learning the old songs and traditions.
"There aren't too many things more depressing than seeing a tradition die in your community, where you're the last person," says Giddens. "It's not to say his music is dead, because he spread it to lots of different people ... but not really from the black community, so that's what we had to offer and I know he was happy that he was able to do that."
She adds, "I feel like whatever else happens in my life, I've fulfilled something important by being able to do that."
Thompson passed in March at 93, and more than anything Giddens feels that she's served her purpose in keeping his legacy alive. Not so much in his songs that they play — he'd been discovered and recorded by Alan Lomax, and feted by his peers even before they came along — but in the proxy act of continuing his line.
The band's sets consist largely of traditionals played in an old-fashioned way using the jug and washboard, a.k.a. the bones. Sometimes they even bring their own vintage flair to contemporary cuts like Blu Cantrell's "Hit'em Up Style (Oops!)" or Run-DMC's "You B Illin." Instead of subscribing to the philosophy that newer is better, Giddens and the Drops believe that if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
"That's been our whole thing. That's why we play so many older tunes," Giddens says. "It's nice we're able to work in a few more composed things now because there is value in modern music, but there are also so many great old songs that have not been improved upon, so why not?"
She adds, "It's the same thing with the instruments. The jug has a great sound, so why not use it? The bones have a great sound. Why use a drum kit when you can use the bones?"
As a string band, most of their music has resided in the upper register, so when Robinson left the band in 2010 after they received a Best Traditional Folk Album Grammy for 2010's Genuine Negro Jig, Flemons and Giddens saw it as an opportunity as much as a challenge.
They brought in guitar/banjo/mandolin player Hubby Jenkins, affording them greater flexibility from song to song. Beatboxer Adam Matta then joined the band, adding a cool percussive element. Though Matta eventually bowed out, citing the pressures of touring, the provision of that low-end whetted Flemons and Giddens' appetite for a bottom. That played a role in the addition of cellist Leyla McCalla early this year.
"Cello goes way back in old time music, so it's still traditional. And she's classical, but she lived in Africa for three years and she knows New Orleans music," says Giddens. "That's what we needed, someone who was willing to do what we do, which is come at something a lot of different ways. She can provide that base without being stuck in the mud. It's definitely more of a moveable lyrical base, and we're enjoying that."
While traditionals have been the Drops' bread and butter, Giddens is excited about writing more original compositions. She had her first song, "Country Girl" on Leaving Eden, and in the past year has been writing intently.
"We're never going to be an originals band. We're very clear on that. I'm hoping to have a couple of my songs on the next album, but I'm just writing to write," says Giddens, who plans to release an album of largely a capella duets with her sister in the coming months.
She's also eight months pregnant. (No worries, Charleston, she's not due until December 30.) She knows it will be difficult juggling motherhood and creativity. "Kids can really inspire you, but they also take a lot out of you," says Giddens. "So it's finding that balance."
It's the same thing they look to do with their music — present old music in a way that's respectful of its legacy but also such that it still feels relevant and engages the listener.
"We really aim to put that audience back into it rather than being a museum piece," she says. "That's the challenge ... How can you pull out what is already in there and stretch it a little bit, push the edge a little bit?"