Rhiannon Giddens clearly didn’t have fame and fortune as her primary goals when she began her musical training studying opera at Oberlin, or after she graduated, when she helped found the Carolina Chocolate Drops: even if you make it to the Met–which is a long shot–you’re still not likely to become a household name in opera. Nor are you likely to wind up on the cover of Rolling Stone if you make a musical U-turn, pick up the fiddle and the banjo, and start playing and singing early black string band music, as she did, with a couple of guys who play guitar, mandolin, and obscure instruments like bones, jugs, and quills. But if you recognize that your musical mother tongue is the entire enormous range of southern American traditional music, and you discover you love mastering all its myriad dialects, well, what’s a girl to do?
That’s a very brief summary of Rhiannon Giddens’ last ten years, since the birth of the Carolina Chocolate Drops in 2005. Happily, more than a modicum of fame (and presumably fortune) has come her and the CCD’s way since then: Bonnaroo, A Prairie Home Companion, the Grand Ole Opry, and a Grammy.
The CCD always presented a united front, but its roster has had several incarnations, Giddens being the only one left from the original lineup. Recently the spotlight has focused on her more exclusively. In 2013 she was invited to perform solo at New York’s Town Hall in the “Another Day, Another Time” concert–a spin-off of the movie Inside Llewyn Davis. In a star-studded lineup that included Joan Baez, she stole the show, and the concert’s musical director, famed record producer T Bone Burnett, offered to shepherd her solo recording. The resulting album and her repertoire on her current tour is a powerful and moving homage to a host of women, black and white, obscure and famous, who paved the way for Giddens. It’s also a stunning personal statement by a very special artist coming into her prime.
The original CCD acoustic sound punched way beyond its weight, but required Giddens to divide her attention between playing banjo or fiddle and singing. On this CD and in her recent live concerts, her powerhouse back-up band, which includes the three current members of the CCD plus drums and electric bass, frees her from most instrumental duties and allows her to fully explore and project both the power and the deep expressiveness of her thrilling voice. The new freedom also allows her to use her whole body to express her music. Don’t blink while she sings “Water Boy.”
The album’s title track, “Tomorrow Is My Turn,” is surely prophetic about where Giddens is headed. She’ll be at the Ark on October 14.