The wave of young people playing old-time string band music continues to grow, with no sign of having reached a crest. In the process, the phenomenon is becoming more interesting and diverse, and, to these old ears, the whole thing is starting to make sense.
On its 2006 album Big Iron World, the Old Crow Medicine Show (featured in the January 2006 issue of Sojourners) solidified its reputation for funky old-time tub-thumpers with timeless spiritual and erotic concerns. This past summer I caught a live show by Adrienne Young, a clawhammer banjo-playing singer-songwriter from rural Florida who has begun to attract a wide audience playing country music and promoting sustainable community-based agriculture. Her newest album, Room to Grow, is more “adult alternative” than old-time, but her live show was still as rootsy as cornbread and turnip greens.
This trend took its most interesting turn recently with the advent of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a North Carolina Piedmont-based trio of young African-American musicians. Their name harkens back to the “race records” of the 1920s, but they play banjo- and fiddle-based music that could have been heard on almost any Southern plantation at almost any time in the 19th century.
American popular music as we know it began with the emergence of the recording industry. In the 1920s, hillbilly and blues artists were recorded and heard by audiences beyond the South. One day in Bristol, Virginia, both Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family cut their first discs. Around the same time, field recorders further south were capturing the ur-blues of Charley Patton and black string bands such as the Mississippi Sheiks. And the whole world loved it. The country music industry, the market for jazz and rhythm and blues, and finally rock and roll itself grew inexorably and inevitably from those original roots.