The World is for Living

Beyond award-winning music, Rhiannon Giddens is a vocalist
on many fronts.

By Corbie Hill

 Rhiannon giddens

Rhiannon giddens

Music runs deep in Rhiannon Giddens’ family.
Her dad and her uncle play, as did their dad. Her sister and her aunt sing, and her nephew is a rapper. Her cousin, Adam Joyce, is the guitarist for Greensboro experimental rock duo The Bronzed Chorus. And Joyce told me I should ask Giddens what her favorite Nintendo game was.

“He’s still sore because I accidentally wiped his Legend of Zelda,” Giddens says, cracking up. “His mom actually tells that story more than he does. I don’t think he probably cares.”

As for her favorite Nintendo game? It’s Kid Icarus.

Indeed, Greensboro is important to Giddens for familial bonds and memories like these—and for the birth of her own music—but her story extends out of Greensboro and across oceans. The 41-year-old musician first rose to prominence as banjoist and fiddler of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a Durham trio that set out to reclaim African-American contributions to string band music. From there, Giddens’ career continued to rise. Her first solo album scored a Grammy nomination, while last year she was the keynote speaker at the IBMA World of Bluegrass Business Conference. She has been a recurring character on the CMT show Nashville, and her second solo record, Freedom Highway, came out
in 2017.

On top of all that, last year Giddens was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, a so-called “Genius Grant” that celebrates exceptional creativity and ability. It will give Giddens the freedom to tour less, yet that doesn’t mean she’s slowing down or even traveling less. Indeed, Giddens lives in Limerick, Ireland, and Greensboro, though she’s in the process of moving her U.S. base to Nashville. And besides, she does have a handful of live dates still on her plate, including an April 14th stop at Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium.

“I’m just kind of taking it a bit easy for the rest of the year in terms of gigs. And then I don’t know what the future will bring,” Giddens says. “I know I would love to get the band together again and do another record, I just don’t know when or how or what, yet. I’m trying to not make assumptions about what’s going to come. That kind of kills artistic creativity.”

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Cary Living: Can you tell us more about your decision to move to Nashville?

Rhiannon Giddens: I was in Nashville a lot, filming the TV show and for other things, and my management’s there, and my financial folks are there. I’ve got a lot of friends there who are in the industry. Every time I’m there, I’m just kind of realizing how easy it is to be a musician in Nashville. There’s a support system there that’s not in a lot of other cities. All my family is in Greensboro, so I’ll always be coming back to Greensboro, for sure, to see them.

CL: I was going to ask about you touring less, but it really doesn’t sound like you’ll be traveling any less by any stretch.
RG: Exactly! But I’m definitely going to be touring less after the summer. I’m looking forward to spending more time with my kids [in Ireland], and working on some large-scale projects that need time off the road. There’s a ballet that I’m working on, and I’m still pushing forward with this proposed production on the Massacre of 1898 in Wilmington that’s kind of been a centerpiece for me.

CL: With the song “Freedom Highway,” why did you want to cover that and also make it your title track?

RG: There’s a great singer-songwriter named Bhi Bhiman who opened up for us for a few tours, and he started singing “Freedom Highway.” I was like, “Oh man, that song is so good!” I’d forgotten about it, that Staple Singers song, and we started doing it at the shows. It was such a great version. … It was not the title cut when we put it on there. It was going to be the finale for sure. The record was originally called At The Purchaser’s Option. I will leave you to figure out why, but it was directly after the [2016] election that we changed it to Freedom Highway. People ask if the record was a response to these things: No, the record is a response to the last 500 years of American history—but that name change definitely was a direct response.

CL: Your nephew, Justin Harrington, raps on “Better Get it Right the First Time,” which is about police shootings and how young black men have to navigate interactions with police. Can you tell me about working on that song with him?

RG: I wrote it with my co-writer Dirk Powell. We wrote it one night just because we had been talking about this stuff. I had been thinking about my nephew very much whenever we talked about it, and this song started writing itself. As soon as I started writing it, I knew I wanted Justin to be a part of it. We actually recorded the song without him, and then I gave him the piece and I said, “Look, this came about in part because of conversations with you, and about how you feel about walking outside, and how you feel about engaging with the world the way it is right now—and it’s really important to me for you to put your voice in this.” He’s a rapper. That’s the way he contributed, was through rap. He is very outspoken and he is very much an activist. It seems to be a family calling [laughs]. He toured with me all last year and we performed the song. It was really amazing to watch how comfortable he became onstage and the audience’s reaction. It was just great.

CL: From your IBMA speech, how do you reclaim the contributions of African-American musicians in American roots music? How do you bring their narratives back?

RG: One of the ways of doing it is exactly what I did: just talk about it for half an hour in front of the bluegrass conference. It’s just taking the opportunity to lay out a watertight argument on the history. The thing is, all of the scholarship is out there. People have done exhaustive research. There’s no reason not to talk about it from a historical point of view. Musically, the Carolina Chocolate Drops was a direct response to the missing narrative of African-Americans in Old Time music. That’s the other way to do it. 

WHO: Rhiannon Giddens
WHEN: 8pm, April 14th
WHERE: Memorial Auditorium, Raleigh
HOW MUCH: $32–$43
VENUE CONTACT:   |   919.996.8700