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Carolina Chocolate Drops leave Eden

By Dan MacIntosh, March 2012

With its latest full-length, "Leaving Eden," the uniquely modern, old-timey jug and/or string band Carolina Chocolate Drops was faced with the daunting task of following up a highly successful major label debut album. After all, "Genuine Negro Jig" earned the act a Best Traditional Folk Album Grammy.

All pressure aside, though, these new tracks are just as unusually enjoyable as those found on the group's debut. Led by Rhiannon Giddens' assertive female vocals and Dom Flemons' male vocal counterpoint plus Hubby Jenkins on mandolin, this album touches upon world music with Mahalla,, old time gospel via Read ‘Em John and the sort of traditional folk that would make any ‘60s folk music revivalist proud, particularly exemplified on the recording's title track.

These Southern players wisely looked to esteemed musician and producer Buddy Miller to produce. In addition to being a darn good guitarist, as well as an underrated singer and songwriter, Miller has brought his hroots music expertise to everyone from grand dame Emmylou Harris to rocker-turned-roots-guy Robert Plant.

"He was a really laidback and chill sort of guy," says Flemons. "It was really a joy to chat and shoot the shit and be able to record some music. Also, a lot of the music was recorded live in the room. A lot of it, the sound, is a lot brighter. So, that was one thing we walked in with, and he did a great job in capturing that."

This was one case where the Carolina Chocolate Drops' record label certainly realized what was best for it, with regard to production. "He was recommended to us by Nonesuch Records," Flemons explains, "and he has such a fabulous reputation. He had recorded Solomon Burke's 'Nashville,' and I thought that was a really great album, so I was interested in working with him just from that production."

The Carolina Chocolate Drops titled their current album "Leaving Eden" because, as Flemons elaborates, "the songs explained a lot of the things about what was happening with the group, without being completely overt about it. The more albums we put out, the more we've been able to rise up into broader musical territory. So, that was that has changed over time, compared to where we first started out. "

Just as this release reflects the act's continuing artistic evolution, its title's action phrase is also referenced in many of the tracks. "There are a lot of songs about leaving, saying goodbye and going away," continues Flemons, "just kind of that sort of thing."

Unlike so many other mere pop acts, these musicians are as much educators, as entertainers because they draw on so many different influences and cover so much musical territory.

"We try to make sure that the art is entertaining, first and foremost," Flemons asserts. "But there's just a lot of history within all this music, and it's not a bad word to say ‘educated.' It's something people have gotten really used to cringing when they hear that something is educational. Like that's something that's wrong. We try not to overdo it. We try to keep it [the educational part] with a nice anecdote; maybe with some interesting tangent on the history of the music or the history of a certain era, a style or something like that. Just to get people thinking, you know? Just to get people thinking about music just a little more critically."

One reason why Carolina Chocolate Drops music is so eclectic is because the band has such wide-ranging listening tastes. Of late, Flemons has been listening to Hank Williams, Tim Harden and Van Morrison. He's also been reading a book about the history of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." You can't get much farther from North Carolina than Liverpool, England. "That's something I've gotten into listening to lately," Flemons notes. "I've always got a whole bunch of stuff playing in my head," he summarizes.

Although you might not hear, say, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds or A Day in the Life specifically mixed into Carolina Chocolate Drops latest tracks, but make no mistake about it, far flung influences and inspirations – even The Beatles – affect the act's sounds in some way or other.

"Every type of music you listen to comes out in the music that you're making," Flemons explains. "You know, you don't have to be completely overt about it. Just because I love Tim Hardin's music, doesn't mean I have to be a junkie and play folk music like that. And just because of Sgt. Peppers, doesn't mean you have to do that style when you're playing it out. But it does influence and kind of gives you different ways of thinking about things."

When you make wonderful music, your sounds can take you places you've never dreamed of visiting before. For instance, Flemons found Montpellier, in the south of France, to be an amazingly unusual locale to present Carolina Chocolate Drop music.

"That's one of the more interesting places I've been to," Flemons explains. "Just the way the Spanish and French and Moroccan culture all come together at one time, there's just something absolutely beautiful about the place. It's one of those spots that I heard was very beautiful, but when you're there, it just takes you completely over the top. There's just so much there."

Surprisingly, these French folks enjoyed Carolina Chocolate Drops – perhaps as much as the band members enjoyed staying in the locale. "They liked it," says Flemons. "It took a little bit for us to break into the French market. They like blues a little bit more. Country-blues. That's the way we really came into it. We really emphasized the roots of the blues aspect of our music. But they really liked what we were putting down as a string band. "

One wonders if Carolina Chocolate Drops' success will influence other musicians to do the same sonic things as they've done. Although there may already be modern jug and string bands starting up, Flemons hasn't encountered any of them quite yet.

"I haven't heard anybody say that they started because of us," Flemons admits. "I've heard more people that were doing things that were similar, and they found a new place to go because of where we went. I think it's a couple of more years before we hear seeing bands that say, ‘Oh yes, the Carolina Chocolate Drops got me started, and now I have a string band or I have a group that's based ideas I learned from them.' I think we're too new to have something like that happen."

Sure, it may be premature to predict 2012's great jug band revival movement. However, who could have predicted even a few years ago that a silent film would win a Best Picture Academy Award? Indeed, stranger things have happened. With its kazoos, bone percussion and regular use of jugs to create music, Carolina Chocolate Drops can make even today's traditional country music seem positively modern.