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As everyone's favorite cartoon warthog once said, "You gotta put your behind in your past."
Perhaps Pumbaa was a little off in his interpretation of the usual saying, but in the case of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the phrase is actually quite accurate.
The four-piece, one of only two (known) African-American string bands in the country, came to prominence in 2010 with Genuine Negro Jig, a record that won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. The Chocolate Drops learned much of their repertoire initially from Piedmont region fiddler Joe Thompson, a legend in the area.
With new album, Leaving Eden, (and following Thompson's passing just days before its release), the Carolina band becomes not only a prominent face in the African-American music scene, but the flag bearers for the new guard of bluegrass music.
This is done through a variety of covers and original tunes, all of which have a similar feel, despite some being originally written over a century ago.
So how do the Chocolate Drops do it? How do they create an album of songs that can appeal to modern crowds despite their general sound being anything but?
It's all about perspective. While the band is firmly nestled within the traditions of the past, there are keen nods to the present as well. "Country Girl," for instance, is perhaps the album's closest relative to the band's biggest song to date, a cover of Blu Cantrell's "Hit 'Em Up Style." Featuring a rootsy R&B vocal from Rhiannon Giddens, the song is an up-tempo jig with beatboxing from Adam Matta.
With bluegrass there is always the question of legitimacy, whether or not the performers are the archetype of that which they play and sing. Giddens and Co. cement their standing in the community with the song and its lyrics about growing up in the country and its many spoils.
Plenty of traditional songs abound on the record. "Riro's House" is a Thompson-taught tune that sounds plucked from an early '20s recording, albeit with better production. "Run Mountain" doesn't seem far off from a spot on A Prairie Home Companion.
New addition Hubby Jenkins is a welcome one for sure. On the rapid fire "I Truly Understand That You Love Another Man," he sounds perhaps as from-another-time as any other member of the group.
A refreshing facet of the Carolina Chocolate Drops is that each member of the band can sing quite well, and they showcase this on songs such as "Read 'Em John," an a cappella track led by Dom Flemons and the album's catchiest track.
But the band is arguably at its best during its instrumentals. Unlike some cases in which instrumentals lack a defining front voice that leads the harmony, the Chocolate Drops showcase fiddle- or banjo-led compositions that represent the group's tight, informed playing. "Mahalla" is a catchy banjo-driven tune, while "Brigg's Corn Shucking Jig/Camptown Hornpipe" features entertaining bone-playing by Flemons and Jenkins that is even more fun to watch in person.
Bluegrass and string band music is an art form largely lost to the ages, though pockets still spring up in regions of Appalachia especially. If there's any band out there today that has the ability to bring the music back to some prominence in America, it's the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Combining the past with certain aspects of the present, Leaving Eden is an informative ride start to finish, and a fitting tribute to the band's mentor.
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