LEO contributor Damien McPherson spoke with Dom Flemons of the Carolina Chocolate Drops recently. The band plays tomorrow night at the Clifton Center. A version of this story can also be found in today’s print edition.
LEO: HOW WAS WORKING WITH BUDDY MILLER ON THE NEW RECORD?
DF: Buddy Miller was great. He was really gracious. We did it at his home studio. We switched personnel in our group so he was really gracious about letting us work out some of the material. We had some of the material together beforehand but it really; it was a whole new experience even for us. Rhiannon and I have been doing this for six years and so just working with new material, figuring out how to rework the group. He was great at letting us work through it, a great fellow.
LEO: WHAT WERE THE DIFFERENCES WITH WORKING WITH BUDDY VERSUS JOE HENRY ON THE LAST RECORD?
The biggest difference is that for this record the material is very fresh. Genuine Negro Jig, a lot of that material we’d been playing for quite a while, so it wasn’t quite as fresh as this here. We came up with a lot of the arrangements right on the spot or right near the time we recorded. There’s just a lot more spontaneity. With Buddy, we made a point to record a lot more stuff live, all in one room. When we did it before, we recorded live, but we were in isolation booths, which is fine, because that’s what we’ve done for several of our albums. We just wanted to get a really live and vibrant sound, that’s something that Buddy did really great. We hit that mark.
LEO: THERE’S A RAWNESS ON THE NEW ALBUM. CAN YOU SPEAK ON THAT?
That’s something we’ve always strived for. Too much cleanliness is like an enemy that’s waiting in the studio. It’s good to have cleanliness on a recording but it can sometimes stifle a song or a performance. Especially with stuff like ‘Riro’s House’ – there’s a raw, beautiful quality to it. It wouldn’t be the same if it was scrutinized, and that’s something we were trying to get. And ‘Read Em John’, we recorded that one into one microphone and I really like how that one turned out.
LEO: WHAT HAS (NEW MEMBER) HUBBY JENKINS ADDED TO THE GROUP?
Hubby has been great. He’s just a really versatile musician. I say this in the most general way. He handles all the banjo duties on the five-string. He knew how to play the five-string before. I’ve known it since he started playing guitar, and the blues and country stuff. He’s been playing the mandolin for a relatively short amount of time, maybe a year. He’s a very well rounded musician and really knows how to put in some really tasty licks along the way. Also he’s another guitar player and that’s been nice, at least on my end, because I’ve been the only one, and the only one who knows chords and how to use chords since the beginning of the group and that’s been really freeing. He’s been really nice to have someone else who can handle some of these musical duties.
LEO: ANY HAZING ON TOUR TO BREAK HUBBY IN?
Oh no. nothing too extreme. We just, Hubby doesn’t need hazing. He figures out enough stuff for us to make fun of him about, little things here and there. He’s a fun guy. We don’t give him too much he ll.
LEO: WHAT DOES ‘LEAVING EDEN’ MEAN TO YOU?
With all our records, we’ve been fortunate that there have been songs that define the overall mood of the record. Leaving Eden happened to speak it this time. When we all started thinking abstractly about it, Leaving Eden, whether we like it or not, our popularity is growing more and more. Not that that’s bad, but with more popularity comes more, like Biggie said, more money more problems. Stuff starts changing different demands as a musician and also as a touring musician, your lifestyle changes. Rhiannon has a baby, I have a wife; those things are changing. But as we have been elevating on the musical level, we’re starting to reach into the bigger pond of music and so that’s something that came up as we were talking over Leaving Eden. We also lost our original member Justin Robinson and that’s something that’s different because up to that point, for six years, it was just the 3 of us and so returning out into this new world as a new group, with the personnel changes and a definite rearranging of how things are done in the group. That’s another point that leaving Eden ended up representing, so when we were thinking of titles, just looking at the track listing and thinking of that, it just seemed like the perfect song to place there. It’s just sad, but progress has to happen, just like the original story of Adam leaving Eden. We don’t love Adam having to leave Eden, but where would that leave any of us?
LEO: WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE SONG ON THE ALBUM TO PLAY LIVE?
It’s between “Read Em John” and “No Man’s Mama”. That shows both sides of me, the lead side and the accompanist. I really like “No Man’s Mama”; it has a really neat chord structure. It helped me pick up a few new ideas on how to handle material of that nature and of course Rhiannon sings it so beautifully. “Read Em John,” I just really love that tune; it’s so simple but powerful in itself. And I’m a really big fan of vocal R&B and stuff like that, and these spirituals are an older link to that stuff. I really like how we all came together to sing it and work with the back ground singers to create a full sound.
LEO: WHICH IS MORE IMPORTANT: PRESERVATION OF HISTORY OR ENTERTAINMENT?
Not that the history part isn’t as important, but entertainment has to come first and the history side should be there, ready and available in case someone says ‘hey that’s a neat tune! Where’d you get that?’ and then you can lay the history on them. That’s one of the things about, a lot of people talk about, oh how do you keep from being a museum piece and how do you keep the songs contemporary and keep them from sounding like old songs? The best way when handling this material is to remember that it is being performed for an audience so no matter how deep you get in your head about the history or the significance of the music it still has to remain entertaining to the people that you’re playing it for.
It’s easier to contemporize it if the performer has anecdotes and a connection to the tune with different historical pieces to it and then you can say, oh, you like that song? You may not know that such and such this that and the other. It doesn’t have to be much, even if it’s just, like “Read Em John,” oh that’s the Georgia Sea Island Singers; they were recorded by Alan Lomax in the 50s. that’s a very small amount to tell somebody, but if a person is dedicated enough to want to look any of it up, you pick up some of the books or recordings, you’ve got a couple years of stuff that you could listen to in your own way.
The entertainment always comes first, giving to the audience. Also, the audience can listen to the old recordings on their own and as a performing arm trying to present music out to an audience that has to at least be appealing to them. Most people aren’t just going to go to the library unless they’re already going anyway.
That’s how they were doing it then, looking at it like this is how we entertain people, this is the music that comes out of our communities, and to not treat it that way, something gets lost.
LEO: SPEAKING OF THE COMMUNITY NATURE OF MUSIC, THERE’S A GUY IN TOWN WHO WORKS FOR THE ALAN LOMAX ARCHIVE, WHICH IS GOING DIGITAL AT THE END OF THIS MONTH –
I read the New York Times article, and have been waiting and waiting. I can’t wait for it to happen. It’s also great that happens to be coming out the same time as our new record, which is exciting to be side by side with that archive. It’s amazing that Alan Lomax in his head came up with something that technology has finally caught up to. To make those connections, be it on a linear or nonlinear level, that’s fascinating to me. That they are finally able to digitize and get the Global Jukebox running, I think that’s going to be, with good fortune, it’ll change the world like it did 50 years ago, 80 years ago when he first started, with good luck we may have another interesting folk revival, a digital folk revival. I don’t know what to call it. Something will happen; sparks will fly.
LEO: THIS WILL BE MY FIRST TIME SEEING YOU GUYS PLAY.
I’m a big fan of a lot of the history and culture of Louisville. Things like the KY Derby and the interesting phenomenon of Black Louisville and how the KY Derby was a strong part of Black Louisville and slowly over time, that’s been forgotten. I mean, even though when you go to the Derby website, they have the stuff there; it’s just general people don’t know about it. Stuff like that fascinates me, interests me, and makes me want to get out there.
People like the Memphis Jug Band and Cannon’s Jug Stompers get a lot of press, but the Louisville Jug bands are a different level of good. You hear some of that stuff, and it’s like, they’re really playing their instruments like a real band, like an orchestra, and it’s just, wow, this is some good shit. Clifford Hayes and Earl McDonald? Whew, my God. It’s going to be great to get out there and play a show.