story and photos by Ryan Snyder
Rhiannon Giddens doesn’t care much for the cosmetic rituals of the entertainment business. Sitting in the stylist’s chair in Nashville before the mid-March video shoot for “Black is the Color,” a kicked-up rendition inspired by Madison County, NC storyteller Sheila Kay Adams’ take on the old traditional, she posted a stern, side-eyed selfie paired with the hashtag #necessaryevil as a reminder of her playful disdain.
Standing behind her just out of frame was Greensboro-based stylist Kyle Britt, her go-to for cuts back home and, in this case, when heightened confidence at a pivotal time is worth an additional line-item expenditure on a record label’s balance sheet. For a woman who has spent the large majority of her life happily unburdened by such beauty routines, that two-way fluency was a first, begrudging step into what is becoming almost an everyday occurrence for her.
Back home in Greensboro, she’s a suburban mother of two. She’s been known to show up at Lucky 32 on a Tuesday evening to lend accompaniment to her close friend Laurelyn Dossett’s semi-regular gig. Once in a while, she calls local contra dances with her husband, Michael Laffan, as the duo Black Irish. The folk-loving world, of course, knows Giddens as the cofounder and sole remaining original member of Grammy-winning black string music preservationists the Carolina Chocolate Drops. She’s on tour once again with her current Chocolate Drops bandmates, but as recognizable a brand as that name has become, it’s been placed on the back burner in favor of a new direction: Rhiannon Giddens, the solo artist.
Parse their individual trajectories, and you’ll find the core elements of the original Chocolate Drops from their genesis rather concisely delineated. Dom Flemons took up the mantle of the solo troubadour, playing bucolic country blues, while Justin Robinson left to flesh out the band’s anachronistic hip-hop theories with the Mary Annettes. On Feb. 10, Giddens made her much-anticipated solo debut with the album Tomorrow Is My Turn on the Chocolate Drops’ home label, Nonesuch Records. With her momentary reprieve from the Chocolate Drops’ mission, she is celebrating the agency bestowed upon her by a different subset of influential voices.
It’s an album of singular vision: remarkable songs of the last century sung by remarkable women, if not originally written by them in every instance. There are songs of popular singers, like Nina Simone and Dolly Parton; those slipping from memory, like Odetta and Marian Anderson; and in the case of blueswoman Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words,” the near-mythical. For Giddens, Tomorrow is My Turn is the fulfillment of something inevitable for her, but also a very personal thank-you letter to the musical icons who have empowered her.
“It’s not that I’m leaving the idea of marginalization, it’s just shifting it to a different place where it exists. These women were real feminists,” Giddens said during an interview at her Lake Daniels home in the weeks leading up to the album’s release. “The Dollys and the Loretta Lynns in the country world were living through pretty tough times and still making art, writing these really strong woman songs and getting them out there in the bravest possible way. They didn’t really care what anyone thought. I found that so inspiring, and it just made me know how lucky I am.”
The idea to explore the songs of her female influences had been ruminating within her since the Chocolate Drops worked with choreographer Twyla Tharpe to create the “Cornbread Duet” dance suite. Things were changing with the Chocolate Drops at the time; Flemons was preparing to leave the band and Giddens was going to be taking the reins while pondering her identity as an artist and what she wanted out of music. One day, while visiting Tharpe at her apartment, Giddens was asked, “What I want to know is, who’s Ruby? The song says, ‘Ruby, are you mad at your man?’” At that moment, Giddens said she was instilled with a focus for thinking about women in Americana music, an occasional, but transient thought before then.
“When she said that, a light went on. I didn’t know what that was going to lead to, and I just kind of tucked that away in my mind,” Giddens said. “I asked myself, ‘Yeah, who is Ruby really?’”
As a thank-you letter, it’s penned in calligraphic flourishes. Famed Americana producer T Bone Burnett encouraged her to display the complete range of her mighty, operatically tempered voice across a full recording for the first time. It wasn’t often that she was able to push her vocal limits within the Chocolate Drops catalog, where their dusted-off old-time tunes were best served by parity and taut syncopation. As that band’s lineup has evolved and its direction has fallen more on her shoulders, she found herself thinking more about songs that didn’t necessarily fit with what the Chocolate Drops were doing, songs that could thrive outside of the niche the band occupied. Giddens said she wasn’t exactly looking to diverge into a solo career when it happened, yet in retrospect, how it happened appeared to be sheer celestial alignment.
It began when Burnett asked her to participate in Showtime’s 2013 all-star concert film, Another Day/Another Time: Celebrating the Music of ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’, after being impressed with the Chocolate Drops’ contribution to the Hunger Games companion soundtrack, “Daughters Lament” (an adaptation of a tune by Adams). When her turn came, Giddens didn’t so much as impress; rather, she was incandescent. By the audience’s reaction, she was the brightest light among a parade of artistic supernovae. Her gymnastic recitation of the tongue-twisting Celtic traditional “S’iomadh Rid The Dhith Om/Ciamar A Ni Mi” — known more concisely as “Mouth Music” — has been hailed as a legitimate showstopper, despite being a relative unknown compared to fellow performers Jack White, Marcus Mumford, Chris Thile, Joan Baez and Patti Smith.
If it was to be her breakthrough performance, it could not have come at a more providential moment. Burnett, the hand turning the wheel on the evening’s festivities, asked her backstage if she was interested in working on a solo album. Not long after that he began identifying a team of artists for a rather desirable job: giving life to a collection of unfinished songs from Bob Dylan’s legendary Basement Tapes sessions given to him by Dylan’s publisher. Burnett wanted to assemble a band of skilled collaborators he found particularly interesting, but also artists who either wholeheartedly admired Dylan or possessed a native connection to the period from which Dylan’s unfinished sheaves drew. In some cases, it was both. In the case of Giddens, it was unequivocally the latter.
“I think Dylan is an incredible songwriter, but I don’t own any of his recordings,” Giddens said. “Compared to a lot of people, I know nothing about Dylan because I guess I spent so much time with the era before him. T Bone knew that’s what I’d bring. I brought an absolute irreverence for his lyrics because he’s not one of my idols. I was sure the rest of the guys had enough Dylan lore for four of me. I’d just go as a blank slate and approach the words as just words, which I actually think everyone ended up doing.”
It wasn’t because of lack of interest, but while many young musicians were absorbing Blood On the Tracks in their formative years, Giddens was mastering Tchaikovsky and Verdi in the Oberlin Conservatory. She would eventually find her voice alongside Mumford, Elvis Costello, Jim James and Taylor Goldsmith in the project that would become known as the New Basement Tapes, even though she had to make up more difficult ground than simply knowing the Dylan discography.
Giddens, an experienced interpreter of the folk and classical canon, was still in her infancy as a songwriter and was being asked to help finish the songs of one of America’s most beloved songwriters with a group of strangers. The group nonetheless gelled quickly, she noted. They wrote, played, recorded and ate almost nonstop for two weeks. In the end, the final product, Lost On the River: The New Basement Tapes, shows her more than holding her own against some of rock’s most established songwriters.
“I like to say that I won’t have the full measure of what I took away from that for years to come,” she said. “It’s one of those experiences that’s too much to consider this close to it. I’m going to look back and go, ‘Jesus, we did that?’ I already feel that way a little bit.”
It’s possible that the most important takeaway from those two weeks was also the first. “Angel City,” the closing track on Tomorrow Is My Turn, is her debut as a songwriter. It’s a gentle ballad that harkens to the music, and possibly the influence, of her close friend Dossett, the product of what was essentially a songwriting immersion course. It came out as her emotional response to everything that happened during that grueling period.
“I stayed up all night the last night writing it, just super inspired by what we had done and how we had all been there for each other,” Giddens said. “I played it for everyone the very first thing the next morning and that was it.”
Since then, her connection to the Dylan repertoire has only grown, thanks to one particularly notable instance. The producers of NBC’s “Parenthood” were in the audience for a New Basement Tapes performance, and shortly afterwards contacted Giddens to appear alongside singer/songwriter Iron & Wine on the show’s series finale, which aired in January. The result was a canonical moment in tear-jerking television, with the pair singing a cover of Dylan’s “Forever Young” over the show’s ending montage.
Work resumed on her own record shortly after the Basement Tapes project concluded with Burnett at the helm. Thoughts of Ruby drifted back into her mind. Of the four songs on which she takes the vocal lead on Lost On the River, it was “Spanish Mary” that would most profoundly impact the tenor of Tomorrow Is My Turn. It brims with intrigue, with peaks and valleys limited only by her own vocal range, and it exemplifies the kind of inborn drama that might not have fit within the Chocolate Drops oeuvre. When Giddens’ first-ever solo tour opened at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tenn. this past weekend, it was “Spanish Mary” that launched the set, executed with the same methodical builds and releases heard on the New Basement Tapes’ record.
Though there may be inescapable similarities to a Chocolate Drops show on paper, Giddens solo tour is shaping up to be anything but. Bassist Jason Sypher, with whom she worked on Dossett’s The Gathering project, and drummer Jamie Dick of Abigail Washburn’s City of Refuge band round out the group’s expanded rhythmic component. Arranged with dual percussion, upright bass and cello, the band’s sonic depth stood toe-to-toe with the festival’s preeminent drone musicians Ben Frost and Liz Harris. It was the technical details, however, that fully sets this tour apart from the Chocolate Drops. Mikey Cummings, an Asheville-based lighting designer who set the moods for Old Crow Medicine Show and Sturgill Simpson, created a high-contrast array to elevate the dramatic thrust of Giddens’ solo program, while farola fernandina streetlamps stand watch around the stage’s perimeter.
Elements of the exuberant barn dance that is a typical Chocolate Drops show remain — guitarist Hubby Jenkins, cellist Malcolm Parsons and multi-instrumentalist Rowan Corbett all take their turns. That blueprint, however, has been fine-tuned and modernized with an emphasis on theatricality to showcase the presence that Giddens spent years in the conservatory honing. There, she was the diva upon whom the lights concentrated, adorned and adored accordingly. Even at a festival that confronted the recent conversation around gender-ratio bias head-on with performances by the likes of Laurie Anderson, Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq, Harris’ Grouper project and Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man, Giddens’ buzz was again among the loudest.
“A lot of festivals talk about being diverse,” Giddens told her Sunday audience. “This is a diverse festival.”
At Big Ears, her profile had already been building before her Sunday afternoon set at the Bijou Theatre. Kronos Quartet, the adventurous string troupe who’ve been breaking barriers between popular music and the avant-classical world for more than 40 years, headlined as artists in residence with the intent of celebrating every corner of their vast catalog. That included a reprise of last year’s collaboration with Giddens at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Saturday at the Tennessee Theatre to include another recitation of “Mouth Music.” As is becoming the trend with that piece, a standing ovation followed.
Kronos founder and first violin David Harrington would note that it was another number that Giddens had rehearsed with them that morning which he anticipated the most , a sparse, but powerful rendition of Mahalia Jackson’s “God Shall Wipe the Tears Away.” It was an opportunity for the group to explore music rarely found in the string-quartet stratum, a hallmark of their upcoming collaboration with Giddens. Harrington is also a believer in her fledgling songwriting abilities, as she’s currently at work on a commission to create a performance piece for the Kronos Quartet likely to be unveiled toward the end of 2015 following the conclusion of her solo tour, which comes to North Carolina this week.
“We had a chance to revisit that this weekend,” Giddens said outside of the Bijou following the conclusion of her first solo show. “David said he’s wanting something that’s really not something represented in the string quartet, something in the vein of string band stuff with a Mississippi Sheiks feel to it.”
Giddens is already at work on her next album, which she says will contain more original work. Her songwriting, she says, is grounded in her poetry writing. She’s pulling from a cloud of sonnets she’s written to form songs, a few of which she said are already locks for the next recording. As for the Carolina Chocolate Drops as a stand-alone unit, there are no plans to put them on the backburner if this solo tour goes as well as expected.
“Since I started associating with T Bone, since I’ve entered that world, I’ve learned to just not plan too far ahead, to do what’s in front of you,” Giddens said. “Do the thing that you’re doing right now as successfully as you can. At some point along the journey, the next thing will become clear.”
Rhiannon Giddens’ US tour comes to Charlotte on Wednesday and Durham on Thursday. There are no Triad dates as of yet. Find out more at rhiannongiddens.com.
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