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She shall overcome

Carolina Chocolate Drops frontwoman Rhiannon Giddens stakes her future on America's past



If there's one word Rhiannon Giddens detests, it's "genres." Classically trained in opera at Oberlin, she moved on to a whole different style of music when she became the leader of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the Grammy-winning old-time string band from North Carolina, whose members all happen to be African-American.

So Giddens clearly knows a few things about different styles of music, and being classified is something she could live without.

"I hate genres. I know that they're necessary, but I hate them. Americana, what the hell does that mean? I don't know. It's American music, that's all I know," she says with a laugh. "If people want to call it Americana, that's fine. What I have learned is that these labels change, and what they mean changes. Just like how Celtic has changed. What Caucasian means has changed in the last 150 years. It all changes, so it doesn't really matter."

Protestations aside, Giddens may have to grapple with the genre topic quite a bit now that she has been part of T Bone Burnett's New Basement Tapes project and has released her solo debut album, Tomorrow Is My Turn.

The common thread through both projects is producer Burnett, who wound up being floored when Giddens performed at a concert event, Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of 'Inside Llewyn Davis,' which was curated by Burnett and held at Manhattan's Town Hall back in September 2013. Not only did the erstwhile roots-music knob-twirler suggest working together that night, he pursued the banjo/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 recalls. "So when T Bone asked me what my dream record would be... 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 on the Tomorrow Is My Turn album form a tribute to a broad range of female singer-songwriters who also get placed in that dreaded Americana category.

Parton gets her due on "Don't Let It Trouble Your Mind," which chugs along a loping cadence goosed by Giddens' fiddle and Chocolate Drops bandmate Hubby Jenkins' bones playing.

She 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 deployment of Jonathan Batiste's melodica as well as beatbox contributions from 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.

"She was choreographing some Chocolate Drops songs and we were going to be playing them live with her dancers," Giddens explains. "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 also asked Giddens to participate in his New Basement Tapes project, where she joined Jim James, Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford and Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes in setting to music previously unreleased lyrics written by Bob Dylan during the time he was recording what became The Basement Tapes with The Band.

It proved to have its challenges, considering five bandleaders had to agree on how these songs would sound and who would play what instrument on which songs. But it was an experience Giddens was glad to have.

"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 says. "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."

Even though Giddens may have been on track to become a world-renowned opera singer, the idea of getting dressed up, constantly auditioning and focusing on nothing but the classical music world left her cold. When she took up contra dancing, and fell in love with the sounds of banjo and fiddle that often provided the soundtrack for these events, Giddens decided to give old-time music a crack.

Meanwhile, a second job as a singing hostess at Macaroni Grill allowed Giddens to save up enough money to purchase "a cheap Chinese fiddle and a Deering Goodtime banjo, and that was it." When she went to an event in November 2005 called the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, North Carolina, she wound up communing with like-minded folk — enthusiasts who were happy to celebrate the Black and African roots of the banjo while paying homage to living tradition-bearers like Joe Thompson and Algia Mae Hinton.

Always one to blur the lines of music, it was here where Giddens' musical education deepened as she, Dom Flemons and Sule Greg Wilson formed the original lineup of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and quickly became traveling ethnomusicologists, doing shows where they played everything from Dixie and Civil War-era fare to ragtime and all stripes of country blues. Giddens has unsurprisingly carried this open-minded outlook into Tomorrow Is My Turn, although she disagrees when people talk about the broad range of music on 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 says. "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."

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