Bottle Rock Napa Valley Featured Artist: Carolina Chocolate Drops

Bottle Rock

California is a long way from home for most of TheBlueIndian.com crew, but we’re lucky enough to have writers around the States. From May 9th – 12th, we’ll have a crew covering the first annual Bottle Rock Napa Valley festival featuring headliners Furthur, The Black Keys, Kings of Leon, and Zac Brown Band. A steller top billing for a festival, no doubt, but we get excited about the small print and jumped at the opportunity to interview the Carolina Chocolate Drops‘ Dom Flemons- as well as Tift Merritt. California, here we come.. The Chocolate Drops will be making a special appearance at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens on July 12th and are on tour throughout the summer. 

Quick word association question – When you hear the phrase “music industry”, you think:

The buying and selling of music. I also think about people trying to figure out different ways to do both in the post-digital age.

People typically associate the banjo with toothless inbred hillbillies and ill-fated canoeing trips. Where did the historical disconnect come from? Did the banjo simply become less and less popular amongst African musicians over time, or was there a more direct co-opting of style and substance by the more popular Bluegrass musicians of the early 20th century?

Your question comes in two parts which have two different cultural phenomenon that have influenced the way that we view the banjo in American society. The toothless hicks and canoeing come from the movie Deliverance starring Burt Reynolds. The soundtrack to this movie became extremely popular and the main theme “Dueling Banjos” has become the banjo player’s version of someone yelling out “Free Bird” at a rock concert. While the soundtrack is just a record of bluegrass and old-time chestnuts performed by Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell, but the movie’s content of the backwood hillbillies have stayed in people’s minds forever connecting the banjo with them.

At that point, the banjo was not generally associated with black people. The only way most people might have seen a banjo in the black community was by way of New Orleans jazz. Though the banjo is a black American instrument in its origin with links to Africa by way of the Caribbean, during the turn of the 20th century, there was a rebranding of the banjo as a “white” parlor instrument. Combined with the black communities newly found interest in the guitar and desires to move away from all things “country”, the banjo changed hands. It was a combination of changes in musical tastes in the black communities and also the blackface minstrel that kept up the musical tradition of banjo in mainstream culture. There was also a strong country string band tradition that stayed in the rural communities, black and white.

Even though there were black and white string bands in the rural South, the white bands were the ones frequently recorded during the height of the 20’s and 30’s. You mentioned music industry and the tastes of the people of that time created the standards for what was recorded. The black community was not interested in string bands preferring blues, jazz, spirituals and pop and vaudeville.

One of things about black/white interaction in bluegrass and country music is that even though there are not a ton of black faces out in the foreground they are present in te background. Bill Monroe, the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley are just a few artists who have made mentions of the influences of black musicians on their styles of music. Again, music industry comes up for me. Just because something didn’t get recorded for whatever reason doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. If for whatever reason something was not documented on record, consciously or unconsciously, there is no way to know that it was ever there and that is one the things we’ve always tried to root out in our group.

Carolina Chocolate DropsI grew up in upstate South Carolina and grew familiar with bluegrass music through the banjo and dulcimer playing of a family friend, that also was a phenomenal storyteller. I associate the rhythm and tones of both instruments with vivid stories – ‘haints, witches, murderous deeds done in the remote hollows of the Blue Ridge, as well as side-splitting humor. Where do you go in your mind when you play?

That’s wonderful! Well, its amazing what music represents in its different functions in society as well as each of our personal lives. For me I’ve always loved the different ways music can tell a story whether its literal or figurative. For example, some songs show me the world that they represent. Take a song like “stack-o-lee”. The song is about two fellows fighting in an alley and eventually Stack is caught and hung. Based on who sings it, the song can be played and the story can be told in a variety of ways. That’s one thing that blows me away about music. It tells you things.

The other thing music has served me is the way that it can be used to tell a story by the person who sings it. I imagine the family friend you had had songs that were not the meat of the story but just an accentuation to draw you in closer. In the group, we’ve covered a lot of ground by just playing good songs that have no particular affiliation to a story except that they represent the story. I hope that that makes sense. Like “Snowden’s Jig” for example. The tune is evocative and makes people think in just hearing it but once they hear the story behind it they gain something else that the tune does not speak itself.

Sometimes I think of the spirits of the people I first heard play the song, whether I met them or not. I try to present the things that I enjoy about the music and share it with others. I also try to find the spirit of original and make a concerted effort to make it my own so that the arrangement, no matter how close to the original, has been modified by me or the group or whoever it might be.

Multi-part question – I feel a complete disconnect between what I see popularized today and what I know to be true about life – I’m not trying to ask an intellectually dishonest question or drape you in a mantle of something that you *aren’t*, but do you think the current state of popular hip-hop, devoid as it is of charm, intellect, and reality, is dangerous to young people? I routinely cross paths with young men and women, kids really, that seem as if they’re trying to be a caricature of a stereotype of a manufactured image. Mumford and Sons aside, banjos and fiddles and dulcimers seem *realer* than much of what is on the air these days. If aficionados of gangsta rap knew the roots of bluegrass music, do you think they would give it a chance?

That’s a tricky question. I don’t know if those type of pop are necessarily “dangerous” per se. I will say that they can be influential on the way people may think about things. Just like political folk songs, the music itself can do nothing but plant an idea in someone’s head. The people who hear it ultimately make the choice of what they do with it.

I think the same applies to hip-hop and the like. People want to be accepted and if the popular culture stresses that an image is considered acceptable to be a part of it, then the people will follow the guidelines of that image and follow suit. I don’t know if that is necessarily dangerous. If I listen to murder ballads all day that doesn’t make me want to murder someone. That’s how I look at it. I am not a huge fan of hip hop though. I grew up in the late 80’s and 90’s and listened to the popular music of the time. Though I’m not actively listening to that stuff now it is a part of my memory. What I’m saying is no one is free of influence of pop music on their lives and that’s a bad thing.

As for gangsta rappers liking bluegrass, that’s a tricky. Though the group is an old-time group and not a bluegrass group, I’ll answer this as best as I can. Most people’s perception old-time music is a skewed most of the time. Bluegrass is an out growth of old-time music but that is not in the front of most people’s minds. Bluegrass, like jazz, gets a bad wrap because of people preconceived notions of what that means. Just like with hip-hop, I feel every genre of music has something good about it when you delve deep enough into it. I feel there is a lot if material in the wealth of music from the 20’s and 30’s that might appeal to people interested in hop-hop. Songsters like Jim Jackson, Papa Charlie Jackson, Frank Stokes or even groups like Memphis Jug Band I think would appeal to folks that want to hear the roots of hip-hop. I’d even recommend the calypso recordings made at the same time because I hear links in that music as well.

I’ve always had this idea for an album to grab famous rappers and have them perform acoustic versions of songs from the 20’s. I got the idea from hearing Mos Def do Chuck Berry on the sountrack to the movie “Cadillac Records”. Though he doesn’t try to do Chuck Berry at all, I liked his versions of Berry’s song as compared to the guys who played Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, who’s versions of those songs really rubbed me the wrong way personally.

That’s just my own two cents on the subject. Haha!

Bottle Rock Napa ValleyI keep hearing that Steve Martin is a fantastic banjo player. Can you verify this?

Yeah. He’s a great player. The thing is that the banjo has been in his act since the beginning. When he was still doing stand-up comedy in the 70’s he used to feature a couple of songs with the banjo as both a prop and as an actual instrument. Its been neat to see him revisit live performance and the banjo at the same time. They say that when he was growing up, he would learn from records that he would slow down and from those records he would tune his banjo down to match pitch with the record and learn all of the licks. I’d say he’s a real banjo player for sure. He’s a good person to be the face of banjo as well and I think he knows that too.

Shelby Foote wrote (I’m paraphrasing here) that one of the hardest things about his historical writings on the Civil War was avoiding unconsciously playing up to the Noble South myth – he recognized that he deeply loved The South, yet had to write about it in an intellectually honest manner. That really hit home to me as a Southerner, albeit one that has spent the last decade and a half living all over the world. I struggle with having any kind of regional identity, yet a song like Tom Petty’s “Southern Accent”, which would put most classic rock fans to sleep, makes me feel an intense loneliness and a kindred spirit with everyone that ever had to make excuses for being from The South. How do you define yourself as a Southerner in your music? Do you even attempt to, or do you simply love the way the traditional instruments sound when you make music with them?

Well this is a tricky question because I, myself, am not from the South. What I can tell you is my experiences in moving to the South from Arizona and being in a group that was originally myself and two Southern-born musicians with our group having more than a little emphasis on Southern music making. One thing that struck me about the music of the South when I first heard it was that it sounded so strange and so foreign, but it was not until I moved there that I began to understand what made that sound. The traditional music of the South is really a personification of the people that make it. The folks playing the music, no matter how foreign or crazy the music sounds, are creating music that fits their own specifications. Even though, people all over the world do this, the Southern United States is a crossroads for an amazing mixture of a lot of cultures and for that reason it has influenced the world.

With all of that being said, the way I try to be “Southern” in my music is to be myself when I am playing it. I also try to be aware of what I am playing and what I am trying to convey when I play it. Whether it is a specific instrument or its a specific style, I try to make sure that I am conscious that when I present the music that I am not only representing myself but I am also representing the music traditions that reach back into depths of the American soil. I take pride in doing this and that is something I have learned about Southern culture and people. There is a reason that “Southern” and “Pride” always seem to go together. When I get out there to play music, I think about the different people I’ve met and have known and think about the things they’ve taught me and that informs my music.

Hope that makes sense. The South is a very complex place and as I am not from there I cannot fully make a broad statement about what it means to be “Southern” but I do have the few things I have learned as I was living there learning the music first hand.

Tell me a quick story – in a paragraph or two, describe a time when you and the rest of the group got on stage and everything came together in a perfect way (or in lieu of that, tell us about the biggest disaster!).

One of my favorite moments was the first time we got to play on the Grand Ole Opry. We had met George Hamilton IV at Merlefest the first year we had played there in 2007 and he said that he would put a word in for us. A few years later, we made it and it was a treat, as the Opry was one of the top goals Justin, Rhiannon and I had had since we first formed the group. We made our way in and George was so kind to us even letting us use Dressing Room number 1, the Roy Acuff room. As usual, I was working the press angle making sure that the moment was documented for future generations to know what it was like when the first all-black string band made its way onto the Opry stage.

I had invited a few key people to come down to the show. There was our manager, Tim Duffy, who was shaking hands and he and I got into a little mischief trying to meet different Opry stars. We even ran into Little Jimmy Dickens, who was celebrating his 60th year on the Opry that year. He leaned an ear toward where Rhiannon and Justin were practicing a tune and he cut the buck right on the spot claiming, ” I’m from the Hills of West Virginia and I love string band music!” Also in our crew was John Whitehead, who has filmed the group since the very beginning – starting at a chance meeting at the Black Banjo Gathering. Bill Steber, photographer extraordinaire, who shot many wonderful shots of us as we took on the Opry stage was also there. Bill does all of our wet plate photography and many of our shots in our songbook. Finally, we also had Scott Baretta, blues writer who wrote a great write-up on the experience when we had our cover feature in Living Blues Magazine.

It was a well documented event and then we went out there and knocked it out. On the Opry, they usually give you just two numbers but they liked us so much they gave us three. It was one of the great joys of my life as a member of the group and as a musician knowing that that will go down in the history books as a good day for music. Marty Stuart came out and played mandolin on “Sourwood Mountain” with us and even proclaimed that our presence was “a healing moment” for Country Music. Haha! It gets me going just thinking back on that. You can’t make this stuff up.

Thanks for your time, I’m looking forward to hearing you (and hopefully getting to say hello in person) at Bottle Rock Napa. – Jordan Pritchard

Sounds great. Can’t wait to meet you! Take care,

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