For their first five years, Carolina Chocolate Drops seemed to have perfect timing.
The trio of Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson had a fortuitous meeting at the 2005 Black Banjo Gathering. They were able to woodshed with old-time elders such as Joe Thompson. And their new spin on old-time stringband music came along at a time when the Avett Brothers and other contemporaries were making acoustic roots music commercially viable. The Chocolate Drops even made the pop charts with last year's "Genuine Negro Jig," selling a healthy 60,000 copies.
But things got a bit awkward back in December. Just around the time they picked up a Grammy nomination, Robinson informed his mates that he was going back to graduate school and leaving the group. February's Grammy ceremonies marked the end of the original trio - although they went out on a high note when "Genuine Negro Jig" won best traditional folk album.
"That was really wonderful," says Flemons. "It was a pleasure just to be there and we were all hoping for the best. But to hear our name called and receive a Grammy was something wholly greater in itself."
Since departing the Chocolate Drops, Robinson has emerged with a new group called the Mary Annettes. Meanwhile, the Chocolate Drops have added two new members - multi-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins and vocal-performance artist Adam Matta - and are back at it. They play Saturday at the N.C. Museum of Art.
"It's still us, the Chocolate Drops on the same path with the same basic stuff we feel strongest about, but with a different sound and a different flair," Giddens says of the expanded lineup. "There are other things with percussion that we weren't able to do before as a trio, so that's nice that we have more versatility for different directions now. We can shake it up a little more than in the past."
Along with retooling the stage show for four-piece, the Chocolate Drops have already recorded their next album, which is due out next spring (title to be determined). They recorded it in Nashville with ace country-blues guitarist Buddy Miller, an Emmylou Harris sideman.
Finding a direction
In what might be another example of timing gone awry, however, it's possible the Chocolate Drops might have tried to get to their next album a bit too soon. "Genuine Negro Jig" came together very quickly, but this album was trickier and took two different sessions to run down.
"The first session we did, the tracks turned out well, but we still didn't have a direction on what we were doing with the new lineup," Flemons says. "Things still weren't solidified enough at that point. But we worked it out, and it's an extension of where 'Genuine Negro Jig' went. There are a couple more blues numbers, and some arrangement ideas with percussion that take other things we've touched on a little farther. We've got another jazz number Rhiannon sings, and a version of Run-DMC's 'You Be Illin' that's pretty out there. But I hesitate to be too specific because we recorded 30 songs and we're not quite sure what will make the final album."
When the album emerges, there will be quite a bit riding on it. Both Flemons and Giddens talk about how important it is for the Chocolate Drops to bring something fresh to the table and keep things moving forward. They certainly recognize what a good ride they've had so far.
"The coolest part about winning a Grammy was being able to acknowledge some people publicly," says Giddens. "It's not just us who won this. But I'm just rolling with whatever happens. I'm glad for the experience. And if it never repeats, at least it happened once and I'm grateful."