On September 29, 2013, a stellar assortment of musicians gathered at Town Hall in New York City to perform songs from the folk revival of the ’50s and ’60s that had inspired the Coen Brothers’ movie Inside Llewyn Davis.
When it was Rhiannon Giddens’s turn at the microphone, she cut loose with a version of “Water Boy” so powerful that the audience was on its feet cheering before the last notes had been played. And then she did it again, with a galvanizing performance of a traditional Celtic medley that again brought the whole audience out of their seats to scream and holler their approval.
Other performers on the bill that night included the Punch Brothers, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Elvis Costello, Jack White, and Joan Baez, but according to people who were there, Giddens totally stole the show.
Giddens herself may have been the only person present that night who was not immediately convinced that magic had happened. “It was a great night,” she said in a recent interview in New York City. “I had a fantastic time.” But standing on stage, she was almost the last to realize that something extraordinary had just transpired. After all, this is just the way she sings every night.
Later, she says, when she read the reviews, “It was like, oh, something happened there.”
In fact, what had happened was that her life had just changed in a big way.
One of the people listening that night was the music producer T-Bone Burnett, whose credits included the landmark soundtrack for Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? and the bestselling duet album by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. After the concert, he approached Giddens to ask if she would be interested in recording a solo album. The question, she says, caught her off guard. “‘Cause he was like, what do you want to do, what’s your dream record?” she recalls. “That’s a tall order for someone who’s been in a band for ten years and is very much a team player.”
That band is the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the Grammy-award winning all-acoustic group that takes its inspiration, style, and a fair amount of its repertoire from African-American string bands that thrived in the first half of the 20th century and were all but forgotten in the second half.
Originally formed in 2005 by Giddens, Dom Flemons, and Justin Robinson, the Chocolate Drops are fiercely protective of the traditional music that inspired them, but they have never been merely a living history lesson or a novelty act. They’re too eclectic for that, and much too talented. So they’ve had no trouble breathing new life into an old song like “Cornbread and Butter Beans” and the next minute sliding into a swinging cover of Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style.”
But when Burnett approached Giddens, the Chocolate Drops were in a period of transition. Robinson had already left the band, to be replaced by Hubby Jenkins, and “we had just decided that Dom was going to do solo,” Giddens says. “I really wanted to keep the band going, I really believed in the mission. But he wanted to go do his own thing, and I said, cool, I’ll keep the band and we’ll figure this out. I hired these fantastic musicians, and we had all these plans. And then T-Bone came along and whoosh! But everything ended up the way it ought to be. I feel like right now in my life, the quality of everything in my life has gone up—the expectations of what I can do, the quality of everything.”
For years, Giddens had been keeping an ever-lengthening list of songs she loved but that didn’t fit into the Chocolate Drops’ repertoire. Using that list, she and Burnett chose the songs for Tomorrow Is My Time, her astonishing solo debut that’s just been released. If you’re curious about what all the fuss was about at that Town Hall concert, this music will give you an excellent idea. Giddens doesn’t play on the album, so you can’t discover what a superb banjo and fiddle player she is, but her voice—a powerful instrument in its own right—is showcased to a T.
Though not exactly a concept album, Tomorrow is still far more coherent than most albums. All the songs were written by or made popular by women, and just thinking about the range of styles included is enough to make your head hurt.
There’s a Dolly Parton song and a blues by Geeshie Wiley, a Nina Simone classic, and other tunes familiar and obscure by Elizabeth Cotton, Patsy Cline, Peggy Seeger, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe (I would cheerfully pay the full price of this album just to hear the hair-raising, joy-inducing version of Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head” that Giddens sings with Jean Witherspoon and Tata Vega).
It’s tempting to see this album as a most audacious calling card, a sort of musical throw down. Giddens insists that was not her intention: “I never sat down and said, I want to show people all the things I can do. The most conscious thing in terms of the theme that ended up developing out of my list was that all these songs were written by or performed by or definitively interpreted by women.”
The theme, she says, was necessary simply to keep the project coherent. “Because the songs were so disparate—not to me, to me they’re all coming from this common well of American music,” she says. “I am so steeped in this pre-genre music, where there were no ‘blues singers’ or ‘country singers’—there was no such thing, there were just singers. You had Jimmie Rodgers doing blues hollers and you had black string bands doing what we now call hillbilly tunes. It was a much more fluid thing. So to me this record is just in that tradition. It’s just American music.”
After they completed her solo album, Burnett invited her to join Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, and other alt-folk stars on Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes, for which the musicians were given lyrics written by Bob Dylan and asked to supply music. It is no coincidence that her contributions sound the most like something Dylan himself might have written. “When T-Bone asked me to come in, I knew I was going in as the traditionalist. I mean, I respect Dylan, but I’ve never been a Dylan head. I was listening to the stuff that he listened to. So I kept it that way. I didn’t bone up on Dylan, I didn’t listen to the original Basement Tapes, I just went straight for a traditional sound.”
Giddens has loved music all her life, but she didn’t fall in love with traditional music until she was in her 20s. “When I was growing up, old-time music was still the hidden history of North Carolina musicians,” she says. “It kills me that Joe Thompson [the elderly black fiddler who would school the Chocolate Drops in the ways of black string bands] was from Mebane,” a little town in Piedmont North Carolina less than half an hour from where Giddens grew up. “My grandmother’s family’s from Mebane. We went to Mebane every year for a family reunion. And he was on the other side of that tiny town. I could not believe it. I was like, you know, I coulda … But, well, there’s no woulda shoulda coulda. The first time I met Joe, that’s how he placed me. I said, I’m a Morrow, and he went, ohhh, and he called me Miss Morrow for the rest of his life.”
Conservatory trained as an opera singer at Oberlin, Giddens returned home to North Carolina after graduation “burnt out and depressed” and not at all sure what she wanted to do with herself. By accident, she discovered the joy of contradancing and the old time music that accompanies it. “I went, what is this? I love it.” She loved it so much that she took a second job just so she could afford to buy a banjo. “Anything that can make me go hostess and sing “‘O Mio Babbino Caro’ at a macaroni grill so I could afford a banjo, you know it was something.”
Immersing herself in old-time music, she eventually encountered her future bandmates and hooked up with Thompson, who introduced them to the repertoire and styles of black string bands. But for Giddens, it was never so much about race as it was about place. “I’m a mixed race person,” she says, “So I grew up exploring. I remember as a kid in middle school—sometimes I look back and feel so sorry for my young self—cause I’d sit with the black girls for half the year and then I’d sit with the white girls for half the year. I didn’t know what else to do. Cause I was being raised equally—my parents were divorced, I’d be with one side one weekend, the other side one weekend. But I explored. I knew there was Indian in the family, so I joined [a drumming group] in high school and explored that side of it. And you know, none of it felt quite right. Where I found my identity was when I realized that I’m from North Carolina. It’s not so much that I’m black or I’m white or I’m Indian or whatever. I’m Southern. And furthermore I’m a North Carolinian. That was a really important part of this music—finding the identity. And it kind of eclipses the race stuff. It’s like this is who I am, this is where I come from. That was hugely important to me and something that I still feel really strongly about.
“It’s weird because things are increasingly global. You can get on the phone and talk to somebody in Algeria. At the same time, things are getting more homogenized, same stores in every town. So that need for that regionalism just gets more important all the time.
“I get so frustrated when I talk to people and they say, I don’t have a culture. And it’s mostly white people who say it. And I say, that’s bull, of course you have a culture, where did you grow up? Who’d you talk to? What’d you do? What was your thing? What was your family’s thing? Where’d your family come from? I find that idea really sad. And I think there would be a lot less of this cultural appropriation that goes on if people realized that they had their own culture and there’s nothing wrong with it. You can admire other stuff and you can take pieces of it for yourself. I get asked, should I sing a spiritual? Yeah you should sing a spiritual, but you should also think about it. Don’t just pick up a song and sing it. Try to understand where’s it’s coming from. Of course you can sing it—music is for everybody. But don’t try to be an old black woman singing it.”
Married and the mother of two, Giddens is quite comfortable in her own skin. “We’re so youth-obsessed in this culture,” she says. “Lately I’ve caught myself thinking [she gives a little shudder], I’m 37! But I couldn’t have made this record when I was 30 or 17 or 20. Yeah, I’m 37. We have stuff to say. Music does not just belong to the 23-year-olds. I wouldn’t be 23 years old again if you paid me a million dollars.”
Nor is she particularly impressed with the cult of instrumental wizardry that pervades the music business. Shredding has no place in her playing. “I didn’t really start playing fiddle ‘til I was almost 30. And yeah, if you don’t start ‘til you’re 30, you’re not going to be Josh Bell, but there’s Josh Bell for that. If you can get on the banjo and learn five licks that you feel really strongly about, that’s all you need. Two licks, for god’s sakes. I’m not a very fancy banjo player. There’re lots of better banjo players than me. But what I know, I know. And I can play. Virtuosity is great but honestly I’d rather hear Joe Thompson play the same damn song, because it’s just right, rather than a lot of virtuosic stuff. Everybody has every right to do whatever they want to, music-wise. I just know what I like to listen to, and I want to hear the heart.”
Accompanied by the Chocolate Drops, Giddens is touring the country this spring to promote her album. You’d be crazy to miss it.