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The minute the Carolina Chocolate Drops were formed, the American music landscape was a much better place. Why, because we need yet another old-time juggy string band? God no. A mysterious yet very specific plague could wipe out half a hundred banjo-playing anthropology majors in suspenders busking in college town coffee shops and there would still be too many. The reason the Chocolate Drops are important is substance, sincerity, understanding of music, and rabid passion for exhuming the bones that form the skeleton that all the beauty of roots music hangs from.
What’s your favorite type of roots music? Country? Blues? Folk? Bluegrass? Old Time? Primitive jazz? Did someone say Celtic? Well it’s all here in one version or another, and much of it blended together, or more precisely, returned to a period when the roots of music were blurred and you didn’t worry about genre babble, and the only litmus tests were if the music stirred your soul, or got your booty shaking.
Blinding diversity and taste compliment intelligent ears for the 15 solid tracks of Leaving Eden. Normally I’m for less songs on albums these days. Trim the fat. But the Chocolate Drops make it deep into puberty and still leave you wanting more. There is something here for everyone. The energy of “Riro’s House” and “I Truly Understand…” set to Celtic rhythms, the spellbinding simplicity of “Kerr’s Negro Jig” that implements the Ralph Peer approach to recording, and the almost ska-like sweetness of “Mahalla.” So much here, yet the presentation is still so cohesive and the songs so intuitively matched.
The rise of mainstream country rap has charged me with the purpose of finding positive examples of the blending of traditionally white and black music. Country rap fans love to throw it in your face that if you don’t like mainstream country rap, you’re against diversity, or you’re unwilling to evolve, while my point has always been that the merging of the two most easily-identifiable elements of the two mega-genres is actually the death of diversity, and a devolution to a mono-genre.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops do not rap in any of their songs, however there are a couple where they use beat boxing to make a bed for the music. Even before consulting the liner notes, I recognized the beat boxing on a few of the songs as the work of the amazing Adam Matta, one of the world’s premier beat boxers, and a master at the art of collaboration, and specifically in collaboration with roots music. Matta has worked previously with The Wiyos and many other roots artists.
Even though you think of beat boxing as a more modern art form, believe it or not does have some history in the roots, and it fits firmly within the realm of the Chocolate Drop’s throwback concept, especially since it is not a featured element in their music, but just another tool in their bag, no different than banjo and the bones.
“Country Girl,”one of the songs on the album where beat boxing is featured, might be controversial if you were looking for the Chocolate Drop’s answer to the country checklist song. But I don’t believe this is on purpose, it’s more an unintended consequence of an excellent song being unfairly typecast by a current hyper trend.
One of the best parts of Leaving Eden is how engaged you stay with the music because of the rabid variety of style and instrumentation they throw at you. They are tireless students, or more like archeologists of primitive music forms, constantly learning and adapting styles to their sonic tapestry. And despite the primitive nature of their music, their approach to recording is very progressive and becomes yet another element for them to play with, using layering and depth in the recording process with an adeptness few others have mastered so astutely.
The best part about the Carolina Chocolate Drops is they symbolize the greatness, the importance, and the hope of true diversity in music. I’ll say what many others are scared to say: It is cool to have people of color playing country music, and not just playing country, but “getting it,” and not using race as either a bit or a crutch. This isn’t Charlie Pride in his Nashville Sound crooner days, this is real, dirty, niche stuff that has found a much wider audience that I’d like to think has little to do with race, and more with the sheer quality of the music.
And country music needs this type of premier, top-notch jug band, very similar to how Old Crow Medicine Show was back in the day, before they decided to go in a more progressive, Americana direction.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops and Leaving Eden are something for country music to be infinitely proud of.
Two guns up!
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