Celebrating the sounds of the Carolina Piedmont.
Old-time music, from banjo-driven bluegrass to square-dance fiddling, is experiencing a renaissance in Madison and beyond. Ask listeners about its origins and they'll likely point to the Appalachian Mountains, or perhaps the Irish countryside, where several elements of bluegrass were born. They probably won't mention North Carolina's Piedmont, where African-American string bands thrived a century ago. That shouldn't be the case for long, though, provided that the Carolina Chocolate Drops keep touring the country.
The original Drops -- Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson -- met at an event called the Black Banjo Conference nearly a decade ago and bonded during jam sessions with Joe Thompson, an octogenarian who discovered his fiddling talents as a young boy. In 2010 the Drops released Genuine Negro Jig, a Grammy-winning album celebrating the black music traditions that brought them together. Stuffed with down-home country tunes like "Cornbread and Butterbeans," plus a haunting version of Blu Cantrell's R&B tune "Hit 'Em Up Style (Oops!)" featuring Giddens' fiery fiddling and opera-trained pipes, the album made diehard fans out of even hip-hop enthusiasts who'd never listened to a lick of folk music.
The Drops' live shows, such as a 2010 gig at Orton Park, turned them into a local favorite and a critical one, with The New York Times calling their concerts an "end-to-end display of excellence." In fact, nearly every time the group play the Madison area, they get a bigger stage and more time on it. This week they perform at the Stoughton Opera House on Sept. 25 and 26.
One of the most impressive aspects of a Drops show is the virtuosic solos, which range from intricate banjo picking to kazoo toots and gleeful yelps that dare the audience to shout along. Improvisational skills have helped the group weather several personnel changes, too. Robinson, a fiddler, departed in 2011, and in came beatboxer Adam Matta, multi-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins and cellist Leyla McCalla. Matta left for greener pastures in 2012, and then McCalla and Flemons decided to focus on their solo careers.
Luckily, two new Drops -- cellist Malcolm Parson and Rowan Corbett, who plays guitar, snare drum, djembe and more -- have settled into the group over the past 10 months. The Stoughton concerts are local fans' first chance to experience the latest lineup's chemistry, which will be on display on a new album set to drop next year.
This week's gigs are also an opportunity to glimpse the new material and revel in the beauty of the band's 2012 projects. These include "Daughter's Lament," a gorgeous track from The Hunger Games soundtrack, and the Buddy Miller-produced LP Leaving Eden, which includes original earworms like "Country Girl," high-and-lonesome fare by folk pioneer Hazel Dickens, and gems of yore, such as Flemons' arrangement of the rollicking stringband standard "Po' Black Sheep." Songs like these are proof that old-time music is the future as well as the past, and that this past wouldn't be nearly as rich without the contributions of African Americans.