Note: This story originally ran in the September 2015 issue of Our State.
Watch real close and it feels as if all the world’s music is pulsing through the beat of Rhiannon Giddens’s right big toe.
She stands barefoot in the spotlight at McGlohon Theatre in Charlotte, belting out the old black folk song “Waterboy.” This is the third show of her first solo tour, and already, she owns the stage. The song goes faster and faster, the band behind her pushing it toward the end, and her toe pounds the floor like a drum. She hits the last note and flings her arms wide as the spotlight goes out.
The crowd stands and cheers, but it takes a second. First they have to remember to breathe.
Giddens performing at The Carolina Theatre in Durham, in April 2015. Photograph by Kelly Christman. photograph by sara brennan
Rhiannon Giddens’s voice has been doing that to people from just about the moment she was born. She grew up a biracial child in Guilford County with kin in the country and the city — people who listened to jazz and blues, country and gospel, classical music and rock ’n’ roll. She soaked it all in. And now, it’s all coming out.
For 10 years, Rhiannon has toured the world as a cofounder (and the last original member) of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the Grammy Award-winning group that brought black string-band music into the mainstream. But now she’s dipping into all the other music she learned and loved. The title track of her solo album, Tomorrow Is My Turn, was written by French singer Charles Aznavour and covered by North Carolina-born jazz singer Nina Simone. There’s a Dolly Parton song on the record, and Patsy Cline’s “She’s Got You,” and Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head.” Rhiannon finishes off with “Angel City,” one she wrote herself.
A few hours before the Charlotte show, Rhiannon talks in her dressing room about the connections between the styles of music she loves. In her mind, it all comes back to North Carolina.
“I think North Carolina is a bridge state,” she says. “I feel like what I do as an artist is bridge things. I bridge classical and secular. I bridge black to white. I bridge country to blues. Even though that stuff doesn’t really need bridges, that is something that I do.
“The history of North Carolina is so interesting, there’s so — we’re never one thing or the other. We’re never red or blue. We’re never black or white. We’re just really a mixed state.
“Not to say that we haven’t had our major racial issues, which we have. But when you look at it from a positive point of view, as a person who’s grown up here, there’s a strong sense of culture, the music and the food. I feel like it’s all one of the best examples of what America is.”
During the concert, Rhiannon follows “Waterboy” with “Last Kind Words,” her take on a 1930 tune written by a barely-known Mississippi blueswoman named Geeshie Wiley. Eighty-five years after Wiley sang it, Rhiannon brings the song to life on stage. Another bridge built.
Her mom and dad, long divorced, remember the same scene without prompting: Rhiannon is 2 or 3, sitting in her tiny rocking chair, making up songs. “She would just sing whatever she was thinking about,” says her dad, David Giddens. “She was always singing or humming,” says her mom, Deborah Jamieson. “She had a wonderful voice really early on.”
She was named Rhiannon for the figure from Welsh mythology — not for the Fleetwood Mac song, although it was a hit not long before Rhiannon was born 38 years ago. Her parents loved the folk revival music of the ’60s — a lot of Peter, Paul and Mary and “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.” Her dad played and sang in rock bands, and Rhiannon went to rehearsals. Her mom loved classical records — harpsichord pieces and Andrés Segovia’s guitar — played on a Bose sound system that the kids weren’t allowed to touch. Rhiannon lived in McLeansville until second grade with her maternal grandparents, who played a lot of jazz and blues records. A paternal uncle had a bluegrass band. “So,” she says, “it was kind of like I had bits and pieces from lots of different places.”
She harmonized with her sister, Lalenja, singing Whitney Houston songs around the house, and naturally picked up countermelodies when she sang with her dad. Clearly, Rhiannon had a special voice. But David Giddens had seen young voices ruined by working too hard, and wouldn’t let Rhiannon take voice lessons until she was 16. She didn’t mind much. She loved singing with the Greensboro Youth Chorus. But she was also a self-described nerd who went to the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham: “I definitely found my crew. We were all weird together.” She dreamed of being a physicist, or maybe an illustrator.
But then, the summer she was 17, she auditioned for the choral camp at Governor’s School, a summer program for gifted and creative students. When Rhiannon started to sing, the teacher left the room and brought back the other choral teachers. For the first time, Rhiannon thought she might be able to make a life with her voice.
She decided to get classical training, and made it into the conservatory of music at Oberlin College in Ohio. Her family would drive up from North Carolina to hear Rhiannon sing opera, and she aimed toward a life singing grand roles in fancy costumes. But she burned out on classical singing, and, after graduating, she came back to North Carolina, not sure what to do. She picked up some work in graphic design. She joined a Celtic band. At Oberlin, she had gone to a contra dance, thinking it was a country dance, like something out of a Jane Austen novel. But she fell in love with it right away, watching the lines of dancers pair up and switch off as the band played old fiddle tunes. Back in North Carolina, she started traveling all over the state, making weekend money as a contra-dance caller.
Harry Taylor, a longtime part of the Charlotte folk scene, showed up early to a dance at an uptown church in 2003 or ’04. He peeked in the door and saw a young woman gliding across the dance floor alone. Later she got on stage and called the dance. After intermission, she sang a mini-concert while playing the banjo. “She was just amazing,” Taylor says.
Around that time, Rhiannon heard about an upcoming festival celebrating African-American banjo players. She worked on the website for the Black Banjo Gathering and went to the event in 2005 at Appalachian State University. When she got to Boone, she gravitated to Joe Thompson, an 80-something fiddler from Mebane who played and preserved black string-band music. Among the other musicians who stayed close to Thompson were multi-instrumentalists Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson. Those two hit it off with Rhiannon, and the trio started playing together. A few months later, they formed the first version of the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops studied the old string-band music, respecting its traditions, but added their own modern touches. For a while, one of their members was a beatboxer. They covered Blu Cantrell’s R&B smash “Hit ’Em Up Style.” They went from busking on the streets to playing in clubs, theaters, and the main stage at festivals.
“It happened really fast for them,” says Laurelyn Dossett, a Greensboro folk singer/songwriter who has worked with Rhiannon on several projects. “Somewhere along the line, she was living in the apartment my husband and I had over our garage. They got the Grammy [in 2011, for Best Traditional Folk Album] while she was living up there. We joke now that that’s the Grammy suite.”
Wedded to the music: Rhiannon married Irish musician Michael Laffan eight years ago. Their son and daughter have traditional Irish names. Caoimhín is 2, and Aoife is 6. photograph by sara brennan
Rhiannon makes clear that the Chocolate Drops are still an active band. The other current members — Hubby Jenkins, Malcolm Parson, and Rowan Corbett — are the core of her band for the solo tour. But Rhiannon’s career took a side road one night two years ago in New York.
The producer T Bone Burnett had invited Rhiannon to sing at a show called “Another Day, Another Time,” spun off from the movie Inside Llewyn Davis, about a fictional folk singer in the ’60s. Rhiannon lit up the crowd with her version of “Waterboy,” then followed with a demonstration of Gaelic mouth singing — sort of a cross between a rap and a yodel. The New York Times called her “the concert’s real head turner.” And Burnett had some other ideas for her.
Bob Dylan had offered Burnett a chance to put music to some of Dylan’s unfinished lyrics. So Burnett asked Rhiannon to join a group that included Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford from Mumford & Sons, and Jim James from My Morning Jacket, among others. They worked up a batch of songs that was released last November as Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes, as well as a Showtime documentary on the recording sessions. (Rhiannon led off her show in Charlotte with “Spanish Mary” and “Hidee Hidee Ho #16,” two of the songs she worked on.)
Along the way, Burnett offered to produce a solo album for Rhiannon. She told him about a list she’d been making of great songs written or performed by women. That’s how Tomorrow Is My Turn happened.
Things are happening fast again. She’s composing work for Kronos Quartet, the experimental string ensemble. She did a version of Dylan’s “Forever Young” with indie favorite Iron & Wine for the TV show Parenthood. She’s been on Letterman and CBS This Morning. Two weeks after the Charlotte show, she was part of a tribute to gospel music at the White House.
“Every day it’s something new,” Harry Taylor says. “Rhiannon is that star that gets loose out from under the clouds and takes off.”
Those styles she absorbed as a kid, everything she learned in her formal training — all of that created a voice supple enough to sing anything. It’s not the same type of voice as, say, Barbra Streisand’s. No matter what Streisand sings, you instantly know it’s her. Rhiannon’s voice serves the song.
“Sometimes I used to long for a voice that was so distinctive that it was the same all the time,” she says. “I know those singers, and it’s just great — you know it’s so-and-so. But I don’t have that voice.”
“But they can’t do what I do.”
A few years ago, Rhiannon went to Scotland to sing backup vocals on a friend’s record. The friend set her up with an Irish musician named Michael Laffan, and they clicked. They’ve been married eight years now and have two children with names about as Irish as you can get — a girl named Aoife (EEF-uh), who’s 6, and a boy named Caoimhín (KWEEV-een), who’s 2. Laffan sings Gaelic lullabies to them at night. Rhiannon sings “The Wheels on the Bus.”
The family spends about half the year in Ireland and half in Greensboro. Rhiannon took them with her for part of the tour. Her sister sang backup on a few dates, as did Laurelyn Dossett. Rhiannon’s mom and a bunch of other relatives came to the show in Charlotte; the next night, in Durham, her dad showed up with the rest of the clan.
“She’s really found a way to connect all those things together and create music that touches people,” David Giddens says. “What I have noticed, in being around her after all this happened, is the lack of change. That’s the piece that makes my heart swell.”
Backstage in Charlotte, Rhiannon wonders what comes next. She wants to work on her songwriting. She wants to record with the Chocolate Drops again. Mainly, she wants to be open to whatever feels right.
North Carolina feels right. When she’s home, her voice slips back into a Southern accent. She catches up on Tar Heel basketball — she doesn’t watch it on the road because it’s too stressful. She’ll often stop by the K&W near her house, choosing her favorite vegetables from the cafeteria line.
“I love seeing the people there,” she says. “It’s a real cross-section of Greensboro. It’s black people and white people and brown people, businesspeople and working-class people.”
Rhiannon Giddens’s people, in other words. Her voice builds bridges, and it proves the power of the blending and mixing of our cultures and our lives. The cross-sections are the most interesting places. Next year it might be somebody else. But right now, the beat runs through her.
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