FOLK HERO: RHIANNON GIDDENS

“I don’t know what Americana is – but I know American music doesn’t exist without immigration.” Rhiannon Giddens walks unafraid through the trials and tributaries of the modern roots music machine. Musician, collaborator and catalyst are just some of the roles Giddens has inhabited during her career so far – with the singer, soloist and bandleader becoming a more prominent voice with each passing awakening. Not for nothing did roots bible No Depression name Giddens one of their ‘Artists of the Decade’ with these words: “Renaissance woman Rhiannon Giddens transcends borders and time.”
 

 
 
Born in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1977, Giddens has been a musician most of her life. A Conservatory-trained opera singer, it was in the early 2000s that she started playing string band music with friends leading to the formation of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. The old-time music that dominated their gigs and early recordings brought Giddens recognition far and wide as she impressed on five-string banjo and fiddle. The Carolina Chocolate Drops released half a dozen records in the first decade or so of the new Millennium and captured the attention of Americana producer and gatekeeper T Bone Burnett and the renown Nonesuch label, who put out such taste-making albums as ‘Genuine Negro Jig’ and ‘Leaving Eden’ in 2010 and 2012.

 
 
Although an ensemble – featuring crack instrumentalists such as Hubby Jenkins, Dom Flemons and Leyla McCalla at one time or another – it was Giddens’ voice, playing and on-stage stardust that the music world settled its attention on. She flew the Drops’ nest one night in New York City at the ‘Another Day, Another Time’ concert inspired by the Coen brothers’ 2013 film ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’. Her show-stealing performance led to the inevitable solo album and she teamed up with the aforementioned Burnett to produce 2015’s acclaimed ‘Tomorrow Is My Turn’. Constantly moving like a shark swimming through a shoal of songs, more collaborations followed alongside world tours and mainstream media presence, before her second album proper, ‘Freedom Highway’, followed in 2017.

 
 
“My work is about excavating and shining a light on pieces of history that not only need to be seen and heard,” she has said. “But that can also add to the conversation about what is happening now.” Becoming one of just a handful of performers in history to play both the Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals in 2017, over the next couple of years Giddens set off on a tour of the worlds inhabited by Americana and roots music that included projects as diverse as a Bob Dylan tribute record with Elvis Costello, starring in TV hits such as the fictional ‘Nashville’ and the ‘American Epic’ documentary, guest-hosting BBC Radio 2’s Blues Show, writing an opera based on an enslaved Muslim-African man brought to South Carolina in 1807 and becoming artistic director of the cross-cultural music organization, Silkroad. Amazingly, Giddens also found the time to collaborate with some old friends and new faces when she co-found Our Native Daughters (with Birds Of Chicago’s Allison Russell, Amythyst Kiah and Leyla McCallao) to record one of this decade’s most important albums so far, ‘Songs Of Our Native Daughters’, released by Smithsonian Folkways in 2018.

 
 
Our folk hero continues to set the pace and when her personal life brought her into contact with Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, it must have been with the tacit understanding that a record would follow. ‘There Is No Other’, produced by another Americana legend Joe Henry, duly arrived in 2019 and quickly gained plaudits. “A bridge-building album,” proclaimed Rolling Stone, acknowledging the melting pot on offer as Turrisi’s classical piano style and Arabic percussion blended perfectly with Giddens restless soul searching.

 
 
Behind The Song – ‘Lost On The River #20’ (Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes, 2014)
‘Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes’ is an album made with discarded Bob Dylan lyrics and brought to life with new music by the likes of Elvis Costello, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, Tayler Goldsmith from Dawes and Marcus Mumford. But, once again, the show was stolen by Rhiannon Giddens on the closing song and title track. The ‘#20’ tells you how many attempts were made to bring these 1970s Dylan words to life, but it was left to an exasperated Giddens (watch the behind the scenes doc’ to see her struggling with the non-collaborative nature of some of the established songwriters in the room) to find the heart of the matter. Working with a solo Mumford, and singing with Larkin Poe, the folk singer mined deep to shine light on the dark tale being told. But, be warned, with music this good; it must be believed to be seen…