Dom Flemons is what you'd call an old soul, a vessel of youthful vigor housing the consciousness of a world long since past. Either that or I'm hard of hearing.
I ask him to repeat his age three times in the span of five minutes (he's 26) just to be sure. Thus confirmed, it's still hard to explain how a kid who grew up busking Bob Dylan songs on Phoenix street corners ended up in a band that plays music spawned more than a century ago in the foothills of Appalachia.
Flemons and his compatriots in the Carolina Chocolate Drops represent a sound seldom heard unless you curate the Smithsonian music section, have a chronic O Brother, Where Art Thou? fetish or happen to be a 112-year-old southerner. But despite the band's tendency to dress like extras from Idlewild, their take on old-time string-band music isn't smoke-and-mirrors gimmickry, just a simple devotion to spit-and-sawdust authenticity.
“We play the songs because we like the music,” Flemons says. “It's such a lively, exuberant music, and it has broad characteristics that a lot of different people can like at the same time, whether we're playing a coffee shop or a square dance.”
Yes, you read that correctly. He said “square dance.” But there isn't a drop of pretense or irony in the Drops' distillation of traditional “fiddle and banjo” music, whether they're playing the Alabama Chicken and Egg Festival or the Berklee College of Music.
“Everybody thinks of banjo music as da-nuh-neer-neer-neer,” Flemons says, breaking into an a capella version of the Deliverance anthem “Dueling Banjos.” “If you don't do that people are, like, ‘Your band is amazing.' But banjo music has always been amazing. We're just not doing what you think should be done with the banjo.”
What Flemons is talking about is the connectivity he sees in old-time music with more modern styles like rock, hip-hop and even punk. In a live performance of the Memphis Jug Band's version of “In the Jailhouse Now,” Flemons reflects that the song reminds him of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. To wit, one of the most surprising (and fantastic) songs in the Drops' repertoire is a cover of Blu Cantrell's R&B club jam “Hit 'Em Up Style.”
“It's just something fun that helps people put two and two together,” Flemons says. “We know how to make the sound of hip-hop with the banjo and fiddle, but at the same time we also know what not to do.”
Flemons is technically a multi-instrumentalist, but his instruments—banjo, guitar, harmonica, snare drum, kazoo, jug and bones—aren't exactly the typical playthings favored by indie-rock musicians who might lay claim to such a title.An early fascination with '60s folk eventually led Flemons to become an ardent scholar of old-time blues, country and jazz before delving into old-time string bands. His musical odyssey took him from the sun-baked plateaus of Arizona to the green hills of North Carolina, where he met bandmates Rhiannon Giddens (fiddle / banjo / vocals) and Justin Robinson (ditto) at the Black Banjo: Then & Now Gathering held in April 2005 at Appalachian State University.All three soon became regular visitors to a weekly jam session held at the Mebane, N.C., home of fiddler Joe Thompson. Considered one of the last great African-American string-band musicians, the 90-year-old Thompson imparted his wisdom on the young prodigies (“It's almost like going to visit your grandpa to look through old photo albums,” Flemons says), and eventually the Carolina Chocolate Drops were born.
A few small shows around their home base in the college town of Durham led to more, bigger shows to coincide with the Drops' debut, Heritage. By the time 2007's Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind came around, CCD had entered the world of band managers, booking agents and international tours and acclaim.
“In my mind, it's happened a lot quicker than I would have anticipated,” Flemons says. “But when I started to see how people were reacting—almost every show we've gotten a standing ovation—I began to realize that this is something that doesn't happen all the time.”
With a new album in the works, some hail the Drops as forerunners of a roots revival. Others consider them to be nothing short of saviors for the flickering tradition of old-time African-American string music. The Drops plan to meet those heady expectations one pluck of the banjo at a time.
“When we came into it, we weren't particularly thinking of it that way,” Flemons says. “From my perspective, we just happen to be black people playing string band music. But we've been cast into that role, and that's led people to open their hearts and give us information with the promise that we'll carry it on, and that's really a beautiful thing.” Carolina Chocolate Drops lay with Chris Clarke on Thursday, Feb. 19, at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego's Sherwood Auditorium in La Jolla. www.carolinachocolatedrops.com.