Carolina Chocolate Drops, from the foothills of Appalachia, make the kind of music that calls up images of old toothless hillbillies – and white ones at that – in overalls and the like. Their music is the absolute definition of Appalachia, sounding as if it were recorded on a front porch overlooking the Nantahala valley. This one brims with banjos, jugs, fiddles, kazoos, clacking spoons, and acoustic guitars, and it rarely breaks from its breakneck pace and soulful, grinning delivery.
But on their second album, Genuine Negro Jig, they’ve set out on a consistently foot-stomping and freshly spun history lesson, reclaiming Appalachia, and setting right what the eye of history seems to have forgotten. String band and jug music belongs just as much to African American tradition as it does to its more widely recognised Krauss/Plant modern proponents or its moonshining Muswell Hillbillies.
The music on Genuine Negro Jig has an almost punk quality to it; so daring is it in breaking with convention (or, perhaps more accurately, in its glaring refusal to accept tradition as its been written down). But on the surface, it’s a daring blend (as American music should be) of Celtic folk, call-and-response, blues, gospel and ragtime, and the effect seems ripped from the early days of the dusty 20th century and respun for modernity, but – thankfully – not updated for the sake of style.
Most of the songs here are almost impossibly fast and loose, and the banjo playing serves as a more than convincing precursor to Chuck Berry‘s hollow-body. But interspersed, the album presents jarring and haunting slower tunes, aching with melodic longing (as on the stunning original, Kissin’ and Cussin’ on which the lyric asks, “Now, tell me pretty baby, do you think you’re too sweet to die?”).
The album’s bulk is taken up with re-imaginings of traditional mountain songs like Cindy Gal, Sandy Boys and Cornbread And Butterbeans, which features the lyric, “I can’t read and don’t care, and education is awful. Raisin’ heck and writin’ checks, it ought to be unlawful.” The three Drops switch instruments constantly, keeping the proceedings loose and fun, and they all sing (though the album’s most memorable vocals come from the opera-trained Rhiannon Giddens; see the absolutely goosebump-raising acapella Reynadine).
In between the traditionals there are a handful of fantastic original numbers (such as the aforementioned Kissin’ And Cussin’) and some absolutely unexpected covers. The standout moment of the album comes in the form of a blistering country version of Blu Cantrell‘s Hit ‘Em Up Style, which turns an urban soul jam into a knockdown barnburner. Their version of Tom Waits‘ Trampled Rose, re-imagined for fiddle and banjo and sung with unwavering soulfulness, is nothing short of chilling.
Genuine Negro Jig is a stunner in every sense. Its music is as fresh and innovative as it is deeply rooted in its time and place. Appalachia hasn’t been this fun since O, Brother, Where Art Thou?, and even then, its players never seemed so genuine. For anyone even remotely interested in the American folk tradition, this album presents a vital and integral page out of Appalachian history that has been long overlooked, but seems poised to claim its well-deserved place in the collective bluegrass consciousness.