Most bands who win the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album do not turn around and hire a beatboxer as their newest member. And most bands who top the Billboard Bluegrass chart for seven straight weeks are not likely to break out a 2001 R&B hit as a staple of their live show. But Carolina Chocolate Drops are not most bands.
"We've always tried to be expansive," says Dom Flemons, who sings and plays four-string banjo, guitar, jug, and assorted other instruments with the Durham, N.C., combo. "We're playing the old music, but we're bringing in different elements as we're going."
That expansiveness has reached new dimensions this year. The group, best known for reviving the African-American string band traditions of the Piedmont region, has undergone a series of changes. After the success of their 2010 album, Genuine Negro Jig, fiddler and co-founder Justin Robinson dropped out. "He decided he didn't want to tour anymore," Flemons says. "So when that happened, we were looking for new people to join."
The first invitation went to Hubby Jenkins, a young folk-blues hotshot from New York. Flemons was working on an album with Jenkins, and was impressed with his range as a singer and instrumentalist. With Jenkins picking up most of the five-string banjo duties, Flemons says the band's third co-founder, Rhiannon Giddens, is focusing more on fiddle and vocals.
The more surprising addition was Adam Matta, an NYC beatboxer and percussionist who studied under the avant-garde singer Meredith Monk and draws his vocal rhythms largely from hip-hop and jazz. Matta isn't touring with the band at the moment because of other commitments, but you can hear his contributions on a joint EP the Chocolate Drops released earlier this year with the Luminescent Orchestrii, a Romanian gypsy-punk combo.
More recently, the Chocolate Drops have welcomed yet another newcomer, the New Orleans art-folk cellist Leyla McCalla. All of this, as you might imagine, has led to some musical reinvention.
"We've been trying to work on new material and re-form the sound of our group," Flemons says. "When Justin was in the group, he was more or less the lead singer of all the breakdowns. So, trying to figure out how the songs are going to be structured—because Rhiannon's a strong lead performer, and I'm a strong lead performer as well."
It's the first major change-up since the original trio formed in 2005, after the first Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, N.C. (The group's name is a nod to the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, an East Tennessee band of the 1920s that included local legends Howard Armstrong, Ted Bogan, and Carl Martin.) Their first album, a collection of traditional tunes called Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind, came out the next year. That was followed by the similarly inclined Heritage in 2008, with the band building a reputation along the way for its spirited live shows.
Then came Genuine Negro Jig, their first album for the widely respected (and distributed) Nonesuch label. While adding folk songs like "Cornbread and Butterbeans" and "Trouble in Your Mind" to their repertoire, it also showed the Chocolate Drops broadening their scope. There were a few originals—Flemons' "Your Baby Ain't Sweet Like Mine" and Robinson's "Kissin' and Cussin'"—and more contemporary covers, like Tom Waits' "Trampled Rose" and, yes, Blu Cantrell's "Hit 'Em Up Style." The latter, with its lyrics about Beamers and Neiman-Marcus set to Robinson's sawing fiddle, became whatever the Americana equivalent of a hit is these days. But it's not just a novelty song. For all its contemporary references, the narrative of a good woman and a no-good man is not far removed from other Chocolate Drops staples like "Georgie Buck" (whose dying words are, "Don't let a woman have her way").
Now, Flemons says, the band is rearranging much of that material, and working on new things, too.
"This year has been coming up with a brand-new cycle of songs, and bringing a new structure of the group and new members of the group," he says. "Rhee and I have worked together for a while and there's a particular situation and context in which we've played the music. So trying to bring new people in, it's been fun to work with it, but at the same time it has been a particular sort of work."
They have recorded an album with the new lineup, which Flemons says should be out sometime early next year. For all the changes in the group, he says the music is still drawing on folk, jazz, and blues traditions. "One song Rhiannon wrote, called ‘Country Girl,' but a lot of it is expanding on what we did on Genuine Negro Jig. We have some breakdowns, we have a couple of blues numbers. There's a South African piece that I had learned on the banjo."
Flemons says he's not concerned about revisiting familiar ground, because there's always something new to find there.
"We did a show with Taj Mahal a couple of months back, and one of the things that he said that was particularly poignant to me was, ‘You know, you can delve into music, and you can delve into it for the next hundred years, and when you're done you still find that you've only scratched the surface.' That's something we always try to keep in mind in our group."