Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with multi-instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens of the North Carolina/New York-based old-time string band Carolina Chocolate Drops about where she learns new tunes and the growing pains of becoming so popular so quickly.
CP: You, Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson founded the Carolina Chocolate Drops as a result of learning tunes from a source musician, Joe Thompson. Do you still visit older musicians to build your repertoire or have you moved past that?
RG: Well, it's not a question of moving past it or wanting to move past it, it's really a question of time, at this point. We're so busy with the touring and now recording a new record. I find, when I get home, I have barely enough time to see my own relatives, let alone go visit Joe. It's hard.
We did see him in February. Justin and I played with him at the Martin Luther King celebration at his nursing home. That was awesome. It was so good to see him. It's really moved down to several times a year that I get to see him, as opposed to every other Thursday. That's the nature of the beast. He's still doing pretty well.
If we were able to do it, we would do it. It's just a matter of the logistics of it being hard, at this point. I'm the only native Carolinian left in the band. Everyone else is in New York. Dom is not necessarily working with older musicians up there, but when he can, he visits people. I know he's working with Mary Learner on archival footage and stuff. When we get the chance, we learn from whoever we can.
CP: If you're not able to visit those musicians personally anymore, how are you adding to your repertoire?
RG: We're doing what we've always done. Even when we were learning from Joe, we were also learning from other sources - old recordings, sheet music, from other people our age, from the radio. All those other sources we used back then, too, so we just use them a little bit more now.
Also, we've learned the whole repertoire Joe was playing, so we have that to draw from. I think we'll always want to have a Joe song on a record, and we always do Joe tunes in the shows, at least one or two. That's there. That's not going away.
CP: How soon after you met Joe did you start performing this music in public?
RG: We started seeing him that summer of 2005, and that fall, we made this band and said, “Hey, let's go out and play a little bit. Lets take his tunes and go out and play.”
An article got printed about us in a really good independent paper in Durham called The Independent, and we mentioned that we really believed in school shows, so then we got all those requests for school shows. It was like as soon as we got out there, we had gigs to do. It was pretty great. It was kind of immediate.
We took a lot of Joe's tunes and some other tunes. Justin had learned from another, older musician, so we took some of those tunes, too. We put together what we had and went to the schools.
We just jumped in with both feet, basically. It was pretty fast.
CP: Normally, bands have a lot more time than you had to get used to each other and life on the road. Did exploding that quickly have any negative effect?
RG: It was kind of funny. Dom and I were full-time musicians - or trying to be, anyway - and Justin was still working full-time as a paralegal. There was a time when it was a little push-me-pull-you saying, “You need to make a decision to jump in and quit your job at this point because we're taking off.”
Once he made that decision … it was pretty hard core. I'd say that, definitely some things played out, in terms of band dynamic, on the road and during some important things that would have been nice to work out before hand.
It was never a huge explosion or anything like that. It was difficult to be dealing with, “Oh, we're going to play 'Prairie Home Companion' and then we'll be coming back and doing Carter Fold.” That was difficult; it was. We managed it well. We worked hard and had meetings, and we said, “Let's figure out what's happening here.” For the most part, we made it work and kept it going.
You are totally right, though. It was hard to work that stuff out. Usually, you're able to work that out on gigs that aren't quite as stressful. We were working it out on bigger stages. I think that it made things happen faster, brought things out in the open faster, so we could fix them easier. It was kind of a pressure cooker, but we pulled through.
CP: Having gone through that trial by fire, does it feel like the band is stronger as a result?
RG: It's funny to ask that, since one of the members quit. (Laughs.) If Justin had really enjoyed touring, I think we would be like granite. You're totally right. By the time we got to the end of last year, things were tight.
We worked on a bunch of stuff, and it reached a point where he realized he didn't want to be on the road. There's nothing to do about that. You can't fix that. That was good because we fixed everything else and were ready to go and that made him realize that, “I don't want to be on the road anymore.”
Now, me and Dom, since we've been through all that and have the new guys, it's a lot easier. It's not starting from scratch. He and I have all this history of working this stuff out, and we're on the same page now, completely. That makes it easier for new people to come on board since we've worked that stuff out before with the other configuration. It's definitely helped.
Things have gelled really, really quickly. I was a bit nervous about how it would work, but it's been instantaneous, which is great. Everybody is happy. Justin is in school, and he's happy. We've got people who are happy to be on the road. It's a win-win.
CP: When you first started performing, did it surprise you that this essentially marginalized niche music was so well received by so many people, even though you were modernizing the music?
RG: It certainly took me by surprise. I can only speak for myself, but I knew people would enjoy what we do and that we had a good thing to offer, but that doesn't always translate into commercial success or interest in what you're doing.
It was really kind of amazing. We didn't even have time to think about it too hard. It was like, “Hold on tight and go along for the ride.” When I look back on those years, it was like, “Oh my god.” There were all these magazines and stuff we did. It was really amazing. I'm still kind of amazed by it. (Laughs.)
CP: Do you remember what the reaction was like at your first show?
RG: It's kind of a split question because Dom and I, before we got together with Justin, got together with another musician named Sule (Greg) in Arizona and made a group called Sankofa Strings. That was in the summer of 2005, early summer.
We had an inkling of what was to come because the first gig we did was a festival in Flagstaff, where we got a standing ovation and an interview with the local NPR station the next morning. It was like, “What?” (Laughs.) This was stuff we put together in three days. It was like, “OK, we're tapping into something here.”
The Chocolate Drops used to be all four of us would go out, and then it went down to just three of us, because we were the ones who could do it full-time. That very first gig with Dom it was like, “Whoa, I think there's something here.”
When we started doing all the school shows and the article came out, we just kind of knew, from the beginning, that this was something special. The first official Chocolate Drops gig was in January 2006 at the art center in Carrboro, N.C., and we knew from the beginning that, “Yeah, we should keep this going.”
CP: What is it about string band music that makes it not only timeless but open to modern reinterpretation?
RG: The thing is, if a song has survived this long, it's obviously tapping into something. That's the thing. These songs have gone through the winnowing process. The songs that no longer speak to people fall away or get rediscovered later.
All the mediocre folk songs from 1850 - no one does them anymore because there's something about them that doesn't work with where people are. There's that process that goes on, so the stuff that comes to us now is the cream of the crop.
Also, when you talk about anonymous folk song making or songs that were composed in Tin Pan Alley and made their way into the folk process, there has to be something that IS anonymous about those songs, whether they were written anonymously or not. It has to be something where you can put yourself into the song.
A lot of songs today are very specific. Singer/songwriters are writing some really great stuff, but it's so specific to their experience that no one else will do them. That's the key: Will this song be done by somebody else and understood by somebody else?
A lot of the songs we do are just universal to the human condition. You can really put yourself in there, no matter what.
CP: When you're writing your own material, do you keep that desire for anonymity in mind?
RG: Absolutely. We don't write a bunch of stuff and we never will write a bunch of stuff because part of our thing is that there are a lot of bands out there writing original material. If we feel we have a song to offer, we'll offer it. There's so much great music that is out there that can be unearthed or uncovered or redone that is saying things we would want to say better than we want to say them. We feel like we'll always mostly be doing things that already exist.
But that being said, we all do write songs. The songs we write have to pass the same criteria of any other song that comes into the band: Is this something that's telling a story? Is it speaking to more than a very small subset of people? We're just as hard on composed songs as we are on anything else. We put it in the pot and if it's good, we'll do it. If not, we don't care if you wrote it or not.
When I write songs, I definitely think, “Is someone else going to want to do this?” I could write something that might go triple platinum, but if no one else will want to do it, I'll feel like I failed as a songwriter. I want to write something where someone will say, “I want to do that song. I want to communicate whatever that message is.”
CP: You've mentioned before that you don't want to feel constrained by the traditions of string band music. Do you feel any kind of responsibility to honor those traditions even as you're putting a modern twist on them?
RG: I think we feel a pretty big responsibility to the song. No matter where it comes from, we want to present the song in a way that is best for the song, so people understand what it's about.
We're not into taking, say, a really slow love song and up tempoing it to military speed just to do it. We want to keep the integrity of the song and just do it how we do it.
Also, if we can cover songs from the '20s or from Joe Thompson and do it in our style and if people get that song and they go back listen to the original, it's like we're a living representation of some of this music and make it live for people.
A lot of people now, you can put on a scratchy 78 (album) for them, and they'll say, “What is that? It sounds like crap.” But we're performing it live and crisply and clear, and they'll go, “Wow, that's a great song.” We're a link to a lot of this old music; we make it live.
“Genuine Negro Jig” was given to us in sheet music form. It was like, this was originally written by Dan Emmett in the 1860s, and we got more information. I heard it on banjo, but I took it and put it on fiddle. I did change a little bit of it and made it my own, but I felt like I retained the core of it, and we did it in a way that highlighted the tune.
When you hear the original, it's quite different from what we do, but the feeling is the same. That's what we're after: Finding the core of the tune, the integral core, and presenting it the way we present it and not trying to force anything. We're not into, “Let's make it sound like this.” We just play whatever's coming through us and works with the tune.
CP: How malleable is string band music? How open to reinterpretation?
RG: I think it's very malleable, as long as you're speaking to that core. If it's a dance tune, I want it to stay a dance tune. You can do a dance tune a lot of different ways. If “Polly Put Your Kettle On” is a tune that was originally intended for dancing, let's make sure people want to dance during it. That covers a whole gamut of ways to do the tune.
It actually is kind of freeing to do that because it's not like we're like, 'Let's make sure it's fiddle and banjo and mandolin.” It doesn't matter what the instruments are. That's one thing we talk to people about. We switch instruments, and we're all multi-instrumentalists. We're not virtuosos on any one instrument, for darn sure, but the feeling transposes from instrument to instrument. Whatever instrument we're playing, it's going to have that feeling; it's just transferring it. Ultimately, it doesn't matter what instruments we're playing. It's capturing that feel and making sure that's what we're doing. That's easy enough to do for the string band tunes.
CP: You've mentioned a new album being in the works. What can you tell me about that project?
RG: We're working on it right now. We've got another session in July, and hopefully, it will come out next year. It's really exciting. It is a new sound because we have no people, so it won't be exactly the same as the old, but the things people liked about the old sound are all there. It's just a new twist on it.
We're still doing the same things we've always been doing, keeping the song's integrity and finding things you've never heard before or putting a new spin on things you've heard a lot. We just have a little bit more scope because we have a fourth person.
We've got some really awesome stuff coming up. We can't wait to get it down and start putting it in shows and putting it out there.
CP: Can we expect to hear any of that material when you play at Riverbend?
RG: Yeah, that's the nice thing about the fact that we're non-composing group. There are no surprises. All the songs we're going to be doing you can find on the web in other versions, probably.
We like to road test things before we record them to make sure the audience is into what we're doing. Instead of us creating these things and putting them out there and letting that be the expression of who we are, the expression of who we are is what we do. That's the most important thing to us, that we're entertaining the audience and remaining true to what we do. That's why we like to play things out.
The recording is a representation of what we do. It's not, “Oh, here's a song you've never heard before.” It's, “Oh, here's that song you heard in a show and wanted to have a copy of so you can put it on whenever you want.”
We'll definitely be trying out as much as we can before going into the studio.