My first encounter with the Carolina Chocolate Drops was sometime in 2011. Passing through the mail room at my office, I noticed a brightly colored CD sitting atop a pile of books and other CDs in what was affectionately known as the “get it, get it box,” a mail crate filled with all kinds of goodies that had been sent to our office. This wasn’t an unusual occurrence; when you work for a top-rated nationally-syndicated radio show as I did at the time, it wasn’t difficult to stumble upon all kinds of treasures sent by record labels and publishers. And so, that is how I discovered the band’s Grammy Award-winning debut album, Genuine Negro Jig.
And I had no idea what to make of it. The cover illustration showed two men standing in profile, and a woman positioned between them, her head tilted toward the sky. I flipped the CD over to read song titles such as “Peace Beyond the Bridge” and “Cornbread and Butterbeans,” which made me curious as to exactly what kind of music I would find on the disc. When my eyes fell upon “Hit ‘Em Up Style,” a cover of Blu Cantrell’s 2000 R&B hit, I figured that would be a good, familiar starting point. So I popped the CD into my player and skipped to the aforementioned third track, and it was absolutely not what I expected. At all. Fiddle, banjo, and beat-boxing, over a song about how a woman ran up her man’s credit cards because he was bereft of good sense and act right? What was this, and why was it so perfect?
As I progressed through the album, I became captivated by this sound that was kind of country-isn but not really, folky and “old timey”—a sound I didn’t yet have the vocabulary to place, but that was more intriguing than anything else I’d set my ear to. By the time I interviewed CCD a few months later, I’d had time to research their style of music and the rich tradition of African American folk and and string bands from whence it came.
The Chocolate Drops’ profile rose swiftly from their debut, and it wasn’t long before the band—sometimes a trio, sometimes a quartet—began making the rounds at major music festivals like Bonaroo as well as the late night talk show circuit. They released a second album, Leaving Eden, and each of the founding members (Dom Flemmons, Rhiannon Giddens, and Justin Robinson) also began to extend their talents to other projects.
Which brings us to Rhiannon Giddens, whose solo debut, Tomorrow is My Turn, could quite easily be one of 2015’s best albums. Giddens’ handling of the Chocolate Drops’ rendition of “Hit ‘Em Up Style”—both vocally and in her exquisite violin work—represented a nuanced energy of a song already well-loved and known for being sassy and sharp. But it may be her understated but assertive approach to the material on her new album that undisputedly establishes Giddens as master interpreter of song. A collection of country, folk, and bluegrass, the T-Bone Burnett-produced set is one comprised of songs all written and/or made popular by some of the greatest women artists to ever walk the earth: There is Dolly Parton’s “Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind;” “She’s Got You,” one of Patsy Cline’s most famous tunes; and Odetta’s “Water Boy.” With each tune, Giddens pulls from the canon of black American musical tradition—spirituals, field hollers, gospel, blues—to infuse her performance with an unparalleled vibrancy. Her version of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head” is a sonic sermon;
and the fact that she can take a song like “Black is the Color”—a tune most frequently associated with the incomparable Nina Simone—and make it uniquely her own while maintaining the song’s soul and integrity, speaks volumes about Giddens’ mastery and artistic vision.
Tomorrow is My Turn is a kinetic listening experience, maintaining its pace and energy throughout. Giddens’ voice is clear and vulnerable, hinting at distant tales and haunted memories, and her contemporary imagining of songs born in earlier eras will undoubtedly inspire the curious to explore older versions and the artists who brought them to life (many of which Giddens describes in the album’s liner notes).
Tomorrow is My Turn is available on iTunes, CD, and limited edition vinyl. You can find Rhiannon Giddens on Facebook and Twitter, and she’ll be hitting the road beginning on March 28 in Knoxville, TN.