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?’”