On her own and as a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Rhiannon Giddens has explored the depths of folk music, specializing in how old-timey songs and forms still have resonance in the modern world. Giddens' music functions as a commentary upon and expansion of the known folk songbook. Her aesthetic made the Carolina Chocolate Drops' two albums for Nonesuch in the early 2010s seem startling and fresh, but not long after the 2012 release of Leaving Eden, Giddens went solo. Tomorrow Is My Turn, her 2015 solo album, found Giddens singing 20th century standards, which was the first hint of how adventurous her solo career would be. In short order, she released Freedom Highway -- a 2017 album largely comprised of original compositions -- and There Is No Other, a 2019 collaboration with Francesco Turrisi that made her artistic sensibility explicit: there is no such thing as "other" in music, it's a place where all cultures are unified.
Raised in Piedmont, North Carolina, Giddens studied opera at the Oberlin Conservatory before relocating back home, where she became immersed in the rural musical traditions of that region. A chance meeting with future bandmates Justin Robinson and Dom Flemons at the 2005 Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, North Carolina, resulted in the formation of their first folk project, Sankofa Strings. Originally an outlet to perform various early African-American musical styles like blues, country, hot string jazz, and Caribbean, the bandmembers ended up learning much of their early repertoire from legendary old-time fiddler Joe Thompson. Adopting the name the Carolina Chocolate Drops, they issued four eclectic and well-respected albums before signing with Nonesuch Records to release their wildly successful 2010 breakthrough album.
Following the success of Genuine Negro Jig, the band continued to tour and record with an ever-evolving lineup that remained centered around Giddens' powerful vocals and fiddle/banjo playing. Drafted by producer T-Bone Burnett to perform solo at the 2013 Another Day, Another Time concert (celebrating the musical era of the film Inside Llewyn Davis) in New York, she gave a showstopping performance of the Odetta classic "Waterboy," which was widely considered the highlight of the evening. Just a few months later in early 2014, she again worked with Burnett on the collaborative New Basement Tapes recording project, which featured Elvis Costello, Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Marcus Mumford (Mumford & Sons), and Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes) writing new music to recently discovered Bob Dylan lyrics.
Giddens' own Burnett-produced solo debut, Tomorrow Is My Turn, was released a year later in February 2015. At the end of the year, she issued an EP called Factory Girl, which was culled from the same sessions as Tomorrow Is My Turn; its title track received a Grammy nomination for Best American Roots Performance in 2017, while the EP itself was nominated for Best Folk Album. She released her second solo album, Freedom Highway, which she co-produced with Dirk Powell, in February 2017. Giddens teamed with Italian jazz musician Francesco Turrisi for 2019's There Is No Other, an album designed to emphasize connections between cultures. ~ Timothy Monger