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Old Country 

Carolina Chocolate Drops rejuvenate lost art

When taking something old and renewing it, you gotta have proper respect for your elders and the music. As the Carolina Chocolate Drops, banjoist/vocalist Rhiannon Giddens, guitarist Don Flemons and fiddler Justin Robinson interpret old-time music in the African-American tradition as espoused by fiddlers like Mebane's Joe Thompson. "We try to make that as authentic as possible by playing with Joe, by listening to a lot of old recordings so we can pull that sound off," Giddens says. "We don't just want to go and be modern."

Growing up in the country in the Piedmont, Giddens remembers hearing what she calls the "old country stuff." But she got really interested in old time music through contra dancing, which utilizes old time bands at their dances. Giddens soon discovered a cultural connection as well. "When I found out about the banjo being an African-American instrument, I was like, 'Whoa!' That's true for all members of the band."

There's somewhat of a difference of opinion about what to call the music. Thompson refers to it as old-time country, but Giddens says that depends on your age and your perception of what the music once was, not what those terms have come to mean. "See, for a lot of people, new country doesn't exist," Giddens explains. "When you listen to really old-time country, it sounds like old time. For most people, country now means Shania Twain and God knows what. You listen to older stuff, it's much more connected to old time."

Giddens keeps her old time connection strong with regular visits to Thompson's farm for lessons. Although the Drops play the same eight or nine tunes every time they go, she says they're never bored, getting a little more insight into Thompson's style with each visit. "It's deceptive," Giddens says of Thompson's sense of rhythm. "The more you hear him play the more you realize how much he's putting in without even thinking about it. People have been rallying around him for years because he is something special, and he does have something that's disappearing."

The Carolina Chocolate Drops open for Taj Mahal at Neighborhood Theatre; Nov. 4; 8 p.m.; $35; www.neighborhoodtheatre.com.

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