''Hmmm, someone's cruising for a bruising.''
That was my first thought a couple of months ago when I opened an envelope from a record company containing some advance music and saw a photo of three young African-American adults dressed in what looked like a thrift-shop-chic version of juke-joint clothes. The title of their recording: Genuine Negro Jig.
I resisted the urge to toss the disc immediately in the discard pile.
When time came to listen to the disc, I braced myself for a heavy dose of irony and racial politics. Instead, I heard this: A solo keening violin whose notes hung almost poetically in space, both lyrical and dense as summertime heat in North Carolina. After a few measures, the violin was augmented by shaking bones, a small chattering percussion instrument. Then a banjo kicked in and the Carolina Chocolate Drops ambled along, proudly rural yet with virtuosic authority.
I sent the irony patrol back to their barracks and settled in for the rest of the disc. Twelve impressive tunes later, I began to investigate. Genuine Negro Jig is the Carolina Chocolate Drops' third recording; they take their name from the Depression era string band, the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, who were a big hit on the Southern black music scene of the time. In fact, the CCD's music is drawn mostly from the North Carolina Piedmont string band tradition of the early 20th century. The trio, banjo player Dom Flemons, and violinists Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson (they all play various small percussion instruments and sing) met at a black banjo festival in North Carolina five years ago, and were taken under wing by Joe Thompson, a charming man then in his '80s, who just happens to be one of the surviving masters of the Piedmont string band tradition.
The group began playing together at town squares and farmer's markets in North Carolina. Festival gigs followed; so, too, did an appearance in Denzel Washington's 2007 film, The Great Debaters. They recorded Dona Got a Rambling Mind (Music Maker) and a self titled disc in 2008. The Drops developed their repertoire from traditional string band music, some blues standards—and some covers. Genuine Negro Jig contains a fiery cover of Blu Cantrell's ''Hit 'Em Up Style,'' an affecting take on Tom Waits' ''Trampled Rose,'' and a beautiful a capella rendition of the English ballad ''Reynadine.''
"It's really no different then the way contemporary actors take on Shakespeare,'' said Flemons in a phone interview a couple of weeks ago. Just as modern-day actors invest themselves into Elizabethan theater to great acclaim, Flemons and his bandmates don't sweat the fact that they are performing a musical style that last flourished when their grandparents were young. ''We just take what we know and apply it to a music that that we love,'' he said.
The Drops do bristle at the notion that because of their race, their music is unusual. Many white musicians, they say, embrace black styles without any controversy. And of course, African Americans have a long and rich involvement in country music, from the Grand Ole Opry's DeFord Bailey to Charley Pride to Ray Charles to the Pointer Sisters. Last year, Darius Rucker made history atop the country charts, becoming the first African-American solo act since Charley Pride to have a No. 1 country hit.
These days, more and more black musicians are investigating vintage music styles. One such musician plays in New York City, often in the subway system. The Ebony Hillbillies, a quartet devoted to the early 20th century African-American string band tradition, have been covering similar artistic ground as the Carolina Chocolate Drops, building a repertoire that ranges from traditional folk songs to Marvin Gaye's ''Sexual Healing.''
Flemons, Robinson and Giddens first met the Ebony Hillbillies at that Black Banjo players gathering five years ago, and they will have the chance to meet again March 23-28 when the Black Banjo Gathering takes place again in Boone, N.C.
Clearly, Rucker's country chart successes and the rise of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Ebony Hillbillies make for a compelling argument: ''Country'' shouldn't be such an epithet in our community anymore.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.