Cornbread and butter beans: the Carolina Chocolate Drops are, from left, Dom Flemons, Adam Matta, Hubby Jenkins and Rhiannon Giddens.
"Sometimes she forgets to charge her phone," Rhiannon Giddens' publicist says when I inquire about failed attempts to reach the singer for our scheduled telephone interview.
It's a crisp Saturday afternoon and perhaps the Grammy-Award-winning Giddens is playing hard to get or has better things to do than entertain a writer's pesky questions. A few calls later, I catch up with Giddens by way of her husband's number. He reminds her that she has an interview and passes the phone. With the din of children in the background, it becomes clear why Giddens is a tough woman to snag.
"I am so sorry. I got distracted by cooking!" she says, laughing. Her response is as down-home as you'd expect it to be if you're at all familiar with the humble style of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, her band. They've quickly risen to the top of critics' lists and racked up multiple accolades for their old-time romp, "Genuine Negro Jig," including a 2010 Grammy for best traditional folk album. It's fair to say the Durham, N.C.-based Drops have arrived, but they're not forgetting their roots.
"Winning the Grammy felt pretty good," Giddens says. "Pretty awesome and it helps sell more tickets." While clearly grateful, she seems nonplussed by the little golden gramophone. With the exception of some lineup changes and the slip from obscurity, little has changed for the Drops. Founding member Justin Robinson parted ways with the band earlier this year, and two new members, Adam Matta and Hubby Jenkins, joined.
Talking with Giddens, you get the feeling that she's still not sure why people are making a fuss over them. When I point out that I've never seen any bad press on the group, she remarks, "I don't know why that is, but I do think we put on a good show even if it's not to everyone's liking."
She perks up when I inquire about the Black Banjo Gathering event where the Chocolate Drops came together. "It's something the movement really needed," she says. "A lot of people had been meeting online, but had never met in person much less played together. For us younger people it was an amazing thing because all of the elders came together and shared some folklore too." A 90-year-old man named Joe Thompson, who's largely responsible for schooling the Drops on their old-time style, was one of the folks at the gathering. "I had met Joe before, but Dom and Justin had not. In fact, it's the whole reason why Justin went," she says. "Joe is just awesome."
Live, the Drops are a highly entertaining bunch. While it's not quite vaudeville, it's more than just a string and jug show. The group exchanges quips and laughs between stories about the origins of its songs. Even the cover of Blu Cantrell's "Hit 'Em Up Style" comes with a story about the consequence of cheating and seems timeless upon delivery. The Drops just play the music they love, but by happenstance bring triumph to an often-overlooked string band tradition and its players.
While it wasn't just one thing that snuffed out of old-time string music, the blues had a huge impact. "During the rise of the recording industry, what got immortalized was blues because it was popular at that time. Then, the industry assumed that's what black people liked," the Greensboro native explains. "So, when musicians would come in to record, they'd say, 'What blues do you know?'" even though you might know a million fiddle tunes. But, if that's what they're going to pay for is blues, that's what you played. That's just one thing I've learned."
She adds, "I knew my history, but this music puts a face on it." S
The Carolina Chocolate Drops will appear at the National on May 1 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $17.50. For information, go to thenationalva.com.