Carolina Chocolate Drops working with Buddy Miller on follow up to Grammy-winning smash

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Photograph by Julie Roberts

The Carolina Chocolate Drops are working with producer Buddy Miller (Emmylou Harris, Robert Plant, Patty Griffin, Solomon Burke) on a follow up to 2010’s Grammy Award–winning label-debut Genuine Negro Jig.

The album became an out-of-nowhere sensation, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard bluegrass chart, No. 2 on the Billboard Heatseekers and folk charts, and earning year-end recognition on the Official™ Something Else! Top 10 for 2010.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops’ new project, called Leaving Eden, is due February 28 on Nonesuch Records and will again feature a mix of original compositions, covers and traditional songs.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops formed after founding members Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens, and Justin Robinson met at a roots festival in 2005, discovering a shared interest in traditional African-American string band music of the Piedmont region. In 2011 multi-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins replaced Robinson. Cellist Leyla McCalla also joins the band on the record and on their upcoming tour.

Here’s a look back at our recent thoughts on the North Carolina-based Carolina Chocolate Drops. Click through the titles for complete reviews …

CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS – GENUINE NEGRO JIG (2010): Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons, and Justin Robinson make me glad that the musical world has so many facets. They multi-talented musicians met at a gathering of black banjo players, and our ears are all the better for it. The trio do some beatboxing, play banjos, guitars, autoharp, the fiddle, various bits of old-timey authentica (bones, jugs, kazoo), and can sing their asses off — especially Rhiannon, who has some opera in her past. While the Drops are paying tribute to music from another era, Genuine Negro Jig proves that the band has no intention of becoming the Black String Band Historical Society. A quote from Ms. Giddens says it all: “Tradition is a guide, not a jailer. We play in an older tradition but we are modern musicians.” Indeed.

HALF NOTES: CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS: Listen to the music and you’ll realize the appeal isn’t at all in the novelty of this setup. No, it’s because they play it so well. There’s agrarian humor (the only place where the joys of “eating beans and makin’ love” are sung in the same song), some nimble playing and wonderful singing, especially by Giddens, whose a capella performance of “Reynadine” is sublime. “Hit ‘Em Up Style” even manages to inject some organic hip-hop into this century-old music, without it sounding the least bit awkward. They’ve recorded some before this record, but getting picked up by the wide-distribution Nonesuch label is transforming the Chocolate Drops from a kind of regional novelty act into a national sensation for those who like music rootsy down to the bone.

LAURELYN DOSSETT, RHIANNON GIDDENS AND MIKE COMPTON – THE GATHERING (2011): A homey Christmas-themed Americana and roots album, recorded in a suitably rustic locale: a house in Greensboro, North Carolina. Dossett, whose song “Anna Lee” appears on Levon Helm’s Dirt Farmer and live Ramble at the Ryman, leads a group that includes Compton (a veteran of bands led by John Hartford, Elvis Costello and the Sugarcanes who offers a loving tribute on Hartford’s “On Christmas Eve”); and the Carolina Chocolate Drop’s Giddens — who reformulates “O Holy Night” as a bass and voice duet with Jason Sypher. The song cycle began as a commissioned piece focusing on a prodigal daughter’s return in the midst of a cold, dark Appalachian night, and grew into a larger project that included more traditional Yuletide fare. Blended together, they imbue this project with deeper, more complex emotions than most seasonal offerings would dare attempt.

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