Folk Singer Rhiannon Giddens Talks Her First Solo Record at Bonnaroo

Photo credit: Mark Knapp

Photo credit: Mark Knapp

Folk singer Rhiannon Giddens considers herself first and foremost a vocal artist, something she promises will be explored further on her upcoming debut solo record. She also plays a variety of stringed instruments, including the fiddle and a 19th century style banjo, which she informs the crowd — catching her band the Carolina Chocolate Drops on Sunday morning at Bonnaroo — was originally an African American instrument that sounded very different from the banjo we usually hear today.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops are a banjo and fiddle based old timey folk band out of the Piedmont region of South Carolina, focused on playing the traditional folk music of that area with an emphasis on how the folk tradition was shaped by African American musicians. The Drops won the Best Traditional Folk Album Grammy for 2010′s Genuine Negro Jig released on Nonesuch Records that gained ecstatic reviews from a variety of important publications, but they haven’t gotten as much attention as some of their peers in the folk music revival.

Their set at Bonnaroo was part hoedown, part history lesson. Giddens gives the historical background on different songs and instruments, and the band even commissions a dancer to show the crowd how people back in the day would have traditionally enjoyed the music the Drops play.

As a performer, Giddens oozes authenticity. When she talks about the South — about the musical traditions in minstrel shows, about the Gaelic songs brought to her region by European sailors — it doesn’t sound like she’s reading out of a history book; she just knows what she’s talking about. When she starts singing, whether it be a 17th century Gaelic song or the folked-up cover of R&B singer Blu Cantrell’s 2001 hit “Hit ‘Em Up Style (Oops),” her singing is equally as authoritative. This woman knows what she’s doing and it’s apparent to anyone watching her perform.

Giddens has gained recognition outside the Drops for her involvement in the T Bone Burnett-curated concert Another Day, Another Time, which paid homage to the folk music movement of New York City in the 1960s portrayed in the Coen brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis. Giddens got rave reviews for her performance of Odetta’s “Water Boy” and two traditional Gaelic songs during the show, songs which she also played with the Drops during their set at Bonnaroo. The New York Times review of the concert referred to Giddens as the show’s “real head turner.” Participating in Another Day, Another Time led to her involvement with the legendary Burnett for her first solo record.

Giddens told Wall St. Cheat Sheet in an interview at Bonnaroo that the record is almost finished, and that it will sound very different from the music she makes in the Carolina Chocolate Drops. “It’s going to be fairly different. It’s all vocal. Because I’m really a singer who plays instruments, you know? And I get to explore some of the styles that I do with the Drops, but I don’t want it to turn into my vocal show,” Giddens said. “It’s a string band, it should stay that.”

As for what the record will sound like: “Well, the material that I chose for it … most of it is material that was either sort of covered definitely by a woman I admire or was written by a woman. So we’re doing a Dolly Parton song, a song Patsy Cline sang, a Nina Simone song, a song Sister Rosetta Tharpe sang and popularized, um, Jean Ritchie … Ethel Waters … So it’s a real, kind of a survey of Americana, women in Americana … from the earlier part of the 20th century,” Giddens said of the upcoming album.

T Bone Burnett is a renowned record and soundtrack producer known for his work with The Wallflowers, Elvis Costello, and Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, as well as scoring the Coen brothers films O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Big Lebowski, as well as the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. “The thing about T Bone is that he’s got such a knowledge of music number one, so that’s really great, and … he’s assembled a sort of fantastic team of musicians, engineers, technicians — people who really know what they’re doing and are really into the music for the music’s sake, you know, and don’t really care about a lot of the other stuff. So working with his team is pretty great, you know. It kind of sets the table and you gotta bring the meat up,” Giddens said.

Given Giddens’ talent and deep knowledge of folk tradition, as well as the female-centered Americana classics that will be featured on the record, that meat sounds like it will be a mighty tasty serving of traditional folk music.

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