It’s often said that reality is stranger than fiction. Take Rhiannon Giddens as a perfect example of that. A biracial musician classically trained in opera at Oberlin University and the leader of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a Grammy-winning old-time string band from North Carolina whose members all happen to be African-American, Giddens has already smashed any kinds of preconceived notions about the kind of popular music that a person of color is expected to be involved with.
Then again, you’re talking about an artist who has actively spent her life not worrying about labels and being more concerned about following creative passions dating back to her childhood growing up in the South.
“I will tell you this mixed tape that I had as a teenager and it will tell you something about my influences. On this tape were Reba McEntire, Queen and Yo Yo Ma. I heard a lot of stuff growing up like folk revival artists like Peter, Paul & Mary. My parents were hippies, so we sang that stuff growing up. But I also heard Andres Segovia, because my mom was really into him and she always played stuff all together,” Giddens recalled. “I didn’t really listen to roots stuff, but I’ve always been drawn to singers. I’d mimic Reba McEntire and I’d mimic the girl who sang in The Little Mermaid. Older, post-college it was Bessie Smith, Nina Simone and Dolly Parton. There were also classical singers that I loved like Placido Domingo, Anna Moffo and Renee Fleming. Really, all across the board.”
So with such a mish-mosh of musical influences, is it any surprise that the North Carolina native would be getting thrust into the spotlight quite a bit more thanks to her involvement in T-Bone Burnett’s New Basement Tapes project and her own recently-released solo debut, Tomorrow Is My Turn.
The common thread through both projects is Burnett, who wound up being floored by Giddens’ performance at the Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis show he curated at Manhattan’s Town Hall back in September 2013. Not only did the erstwhile roots music knob-twirler bring it up that night, but he pursued the banjo and fiddle-playing chanteuse a couple of weeks later on the phone. What hooked Giddens was when she was asked what her ideal project would be.
“I had this list of things that didn’t really fit into the Carolina Chocolate Drops. I was just setting them aside, thinking about all these incredible women I was inspired by and it was something that had been hibernating for me,” she recalled. “So when T-Bone asked me what my dream record would be, I didn’t know that existed two weeks ago. But as I was thinking about it, I knew I wouldn’t have to scramble for anything at all. I already had a project right here and it would be the perfect project to do with T-Bone Burnett. So I typed all the songs up and sent them over to him and he said we should do all of them—except for the Dolly Parton song [“Gypsy Joe and Me”] I picked. He swapped in another one and it was the absolute right choice.”
The resulting 11 songs wound up being a tribute to a broad range of female singer-songwriters affiliated with the Americana category of music. Parton gets her due on a reading of “Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind” that chugs along a loping cadence goosed along by fiddle and Chocolate Drops bandmate Hubby Jenkins’ bones playing as Giddens’ uses her quavering vibrato to defiantly declare, “Maybe you feel obligated/And out of sympathy for me you stay/But I’d rather live alone/Than live with someone who doesn’t love me.” Elsewhere, Giddens takes Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head” down to the crossroads of gospel and Sun Records twang while the traditional “Black Is the Color,” which has been covered by the likes of Joan Baez and Nina Simone, is given a contemporary spin thanks to the addition of Jonathan Batiste’s melodica and beatbox contributions by former Chocolate Drop Adam Matta. Interestingly enough, it was another Tharp, renowned choreographer Twyla, who helped set the die for the theme of this record.
“[Twyla] was choreographing some Chocolate Drops songs and we were going to be playing them live with her dancers. So I met with her about this project that happened when was trying out how to reconfigure the band, figure out what I was doing and what was going on with life,” Giddens explained with a laugh. “Twyla picked ‘Ruby, Are You Mad At Your Man?’ as one of the songs to cover, which is a Cousin Emmy song and what she wanted to know was who Ruby was. And I’ll never forget how she asked that in a very direct way. I had been dancing around this idea of women in Americana music and Ruby just kind of became that catalyst of asking who this woman was. Or who Cousin Emmy is? Or Dolly Parton or Geeshie Wiley? Who are all these women that are incredibly important in this music? That lay dormant in my mind until T-Bone came knocking and then it was all about finding Ruby.”
During the time Burnett and Giddens were working on her debut, the producer convinced the contra dancing southerner to work on his New Basement Tapes project, where she’d join Jim James, Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford and Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes in recording previously unreleased lyrics written by Bob Dylan while he was recording what became The Basement Tapes with The Band. It proved to have its challenges given the fact that five band leaders would figure out how these songs would sound, who was playing what instrument on what song. But it was an experience Giddens was glad to have experienced.
“It was pretty amazing, but it was also very difficult for me. I had to push through a lot of things for myself personally, but that’s where the best art comes, when you’re striving to overcome something,” she said. “I think it’s one of the best things that I’ve ever done in terms of the output and what I learned and gained. I think I will be processing that for years to come.”
One thing that’s clear with Giddens is her dislike of labels, particularly when it comes to Tomorrow Is My Turn. The jovial musicologist shows her semi-serious exasperation when she mentions her disagreement with people that who claim they hear a broad range of music throughout her new record.
“I love it when people say there are so many different genres on my record but actually, not really with this specific era of American music,” she said. “That’s also the point of the record which is to say that all of this came out of the same well. You had Jimmie Rodgers doing blues and blues artists doing country hollers. It’s all part of the same origin, so let’s try and remember that. This all actually belongs together. If I put electronica or rap on my album, that would be different. To me, all this music is cheek-by-jowl next to each other.”
Rhiannon Giddens will be appearing on Nov. 19 at The Tilles Center for the Performing Arts, 720 Northern Blvd. in Greenvale. For more information, call 516-299-3100 or visit www.tillescenter.org.