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Rhiannon Giddens

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 resonate 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, she went solo. Tomorrow Is My Turn, her 2015 debut, found Giddens singing 20th century standards and 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. Giddens's omnivorous worldview was further showcased on her Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Omar and its lighter counterpart, the 2023 album You're the One. 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 received a MacArthur Genius Fellowship in October of that year. Giddens formed Our Native Daughters with fellow singer/songwriters Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell, and Amythyst Kiah; the collective released Songs of Our Native Daughters in February 2019. That year, Giddens also teamed with Italian jazz musician Francesco Turrisi for There Is No Other, an album designed to emphasize connections between cultures. The duo earned a Grammy nomination for the track "I'm on My Way." Giddens and Turrisi reunited for 2021's Grammy-nominated They're Calling Me Home, an album informed by the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. Giddens's next major project was Omar, an opera based on the autobiography of Omar Ibn Said, a Muslim cleric who was enslaved in Charleston, South California in the early 1800s. Premiering in 2022, Omar contained a libretto written by Giddens along with songs co-composed with Michael Abels. The opera received the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2023. Later that year, Giddens returned with You're the One. Produced by Jack Splash and featuring a duet with Jason Isbell, it was her first album to contain nothing but original songs.
© Timothy Monger /TiVo


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