An extraordinary and stylish history lesson of an album.
Lloyd Bradley 2010
Carolina Chocolate Drops are one of the last exponents of Piedmont string’n’jug band music, an African-American rural style dating back to the early 20th century from the Piedmont Plateau, essentially the foothills of the southern Appalachian Mountains.
For the most part this album’s an unashamedly foot-stomping countrified fiddle-and-banjo racket, and with it the trio reclaim what is usually assumed to be exclusively hillbilly property. But this historic black style is mountain music with something more, as these 12 tracks show how it fits between the European quadrilles and the Anglo/Celtic folk that came across the Atlantic and the rural blues and ragtime jazz that grew out the American South, informing so much contemporary music. And in the hands of the Carolina Chocolate Drops this history lesson is far from dry.
The relatively youthful threesome learned their craft from original Piedmont players and swap instruments – banjo, fiddle, jug, harmonica, guitar, snare drum and kazoo – with ease, and although they all sing, the guys, Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson, leave most of the vocals to the opera-trained Rhiannon Giddens. Cleverly, the group mix traditional songs with original compositions and a couple of surprising covers, allowing them to honour the past, then subtly nudge it forward linking it to the modern music they grew up with.
Of the former, Cindy Gal, Cornbread and Butterbeans and Sandy Boys are joyous jigs, with lyrics about life in general, while Snowden’s Jig and the stunning, a cappella Reynadine show the pensive, bluesy side of the original style. New song Kissin’ and Cussin’ arranges the mountain instruments into what becomes an intriguing contemporary ballad, while their turning of Tom Waits’ Trampled Rose into syncopated country blues adds yet another layer of poignancy to an already heart-wrenching number.
The big surprise, though, is the pickin’, fiddlin’ and slappin’ version of Blu Cantrell’s Hit ‘em Up Style, which totally countrifies an urban classic to create a tune that would be just as at home in hoedown as any blinging city nightclub. It’s the highlight of an extraordinary and stylish album.