The Carolina Chocolate Drops like to switch it up. They are the musical chairs of bands. The members are continually trading out instruments with each other during their sets, and the actual line up of the band doesn’t seem to stay the same for longer than an album. But with every new person or instrument that’s brought into the group comes another element to layer atop the rich, traditional folk foundation the band has built up for themselves.
“I really didn’t start picking up music until after college,” Rhiannon Giddens said. “I went to school for voice, opera actually- and picked up a banjo and started playing that afterward, and didn’t really have any preconceived notions about playing music really.”
Giddens along with the other founding members of the band, Don Flemons, Sule Greg Wilson, and sometimes Justin Robinson, started the group after attending the first Black Banjo Gathering in their hometown of Boone, North Carolina.
“When I first learned about these black string bands, I just thought it’d be really great to be in one,” Giddens said. “Soon after that, we started playing with Joe Thompson, who is an older black fiddler, and was 86 years old at the time, and we really learned a lot from him.”
The group played with Thompson frequently and learned many of their early songs from him, which were mostly regional folk songs from the Piedmont, North Carolina area.
The Drops released their first album, “Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind” in 2006, and have released an album every year since. In 2010, their album, “Genuine Negro Jig” won a Grammy for
Best Traditional Folk Album.
“We were at the Grammy’s- we didn’t think we’d win but it’s not every day that you get the chance to go to something like that, so we were there- and they called out our name,” Giddens said. “We couldn’t believe it. We made sure to thank Joe for everything. It was just a really great thing, not only for our band, but for the whole movement of this type of music. “
Joe Thompson passed away in 2012.
“He died when he was 93, and he lived to see his music and his family recognized by the state and he was very happy,” Giddens said.
The band has continued to evolve and bring on new members while some have parted ways to pursue solo careers or other musical endeavors.
“We kind of look at it like these people aren’t all just in a band, it’s more of a collective,” Giddens said. “We still keep all the stuff that makes us, us. It’s actually really refreshing because it just kind of enhances the music.”
In 2012, with several members departing to work on their various careers, the Drops brought in a cellist from New Orleans named Leyla McCalla as well as beatboxer Adam Matta, which has added another element to the often changing repertoire. The Drops recorded another album with their new members and is tackling a new project.
The group has been trying to focus on being able to play educational shows for children.
“We can tour whenever we want. We’re on the road most of the year, usually lots of festivals and stuff. There seems to be a lot of work for a black string band these days!” Giddens said.
“We just really want to keep trying to get the music out there, especially in schools; otherwise kids might not hear this type of music.”
The educational shows are often some of the harder ones to book, because of various school scheduling and budget constraints.
“We as the musicians have to make it a priority to play these kinds of shows,” Giddens said. “Sometimes you’re not getting paid for it because a budget just got slashed, but we can’t just wait around for someone to come to us and ask us to play for these kids. It’s very important to us, so we’re going to keep trying. “
Carolina Chocolate Drops w/ Edward David Anderson
WHERE: Vinyl Music Hall
WHEN: Feb 9
TIME: 7 p.m.