Telluride Bluegrass: Rhiannon Giddens, Today is Her Turn

Telluride Bluegrass: Rhiannon Giddens, Today is Her Turn

“Rhiannon’s last trip to Bluegrass (as a co-founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops in 2010) was a revelation, and today her star continues to rise thanks to a brilliant solo album, collaborations with T Bone Burnett, Marcus Mumford, and Elvis Costello, and an undeniable voice and powerful artistic vision,” Brian Eyster, marketing director, Planet Bluegrass. To learn more about Rhiannon Giddens, scroll down to the bottom of the page and listen to our conversation.


Thirteen Grammys to his credit  – and counting.

For those just in from some distant galaxy, T Bone Burnett is the legendary music producer behind blockbuster soundtracks like “O Brother, Where Are Thou?,” “The Hunger Games,” “Crazy Heart” (Oscar and Golden Globe) and “Inside Llewyn Davis.” He is also a producer of other iconic artists such as Robert Plant, Alison Krauss, Counting Crows, Los Lobos, Gillian Welch, and Elvis Costello, all of whom have performed on festival stages in Telluride, including Bluegrass. Now add Rhiannon Giddens’s name to that list of bright lights. The singer’s first solo release, Tomorrow is My Turn, could bring T Bone his next gilded gramophone. It is already turning Rhiannon into a boldfaced somebody or as The Wall Street Journal exclaimed: “2015’s Next Big Thing.” 

“The album is a showcase for Ms. Giddens’s glorious voice, which merges an opera singer’s detail and a deep connection to Southern roots. She can summon the power of a field holler, Celtic quavers, girlish innocence, bluesy sensuality, gospel exaltation or the pain of slavery. She can sing velvety, long-breathed phrases or rasp and yip like a singer from the backwoods long ago. For all her technical control, her voice is a perpetually soulful marvel,” Jon Pareles, The New York Times

We next caught Rhiannon’s mesmerizing act while viewing a documentary on TV about the members of The New Basement Tapes, another of  T Bone’s projects. She was writing songs based on rediscovered Bob Dylan lyrics alongside Elvis Costello, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons and Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes. Rhiannon performed “Angel City” for the cast, a lullaby about overcoming fears to become “closer to free.” The haunting “Angel City” became the climax of Tomorrow.

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Tomorrow is My Turn incorporates gospel, jazz, blues, and country, plus a hint of proto-rock and roll. Genres  aside, in all Rhiannon displays an emotional range that twins with her vocal pyrotechnics as she covers songs long identified with Nina Simone, Odetta, Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, Elizabeth Cotton among other legends and makes them her own.

Songs you will hear during Rhiannon Giddens’s set Thursday, June 18, 3:45 – 5 p.m., opening day of the 42nd annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival.

It all started towards the end of the T Bone Burnett–curated September 2013 “Another Place, Another Time” concert at New York City’s Town Hall, a celebration of the early ’60s folk revival that had inspired the Joel and Ethan Coen film “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Rhiannon stepped into the limelight and stole the show.

Performing Odetta’s “Water Boy” with, as the New York Times put it, “the fervor of a spiritual, the yips of a folk holler, and the sultry insinuation of the blues,” Rhiannon brought the star-studded audience to its feet, and she was the talk of the lobby during intermission. Attendees unfamiliar with her Grammy Award–winning work as a member of African-American folk interpreters Carolina Chocolate Drops wondered who exactly this lady of elegant bearing, prodigious voice, and fierce spirit might be.

Backstage, T Bone already knew the answer. He immediately asked if Rhiannon if she was ready to make her own record.

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Rhiannon Giddens’s journey, in the larger sense, began in the Piedmont region of North Carolina where she was raised, an area with a rich legacy of old-time music, black and white, that she would explore in depth after college. Much like the classically trained Odetta, Rhiannon originally envisioned a career in opera and earned a degree in vocal performance at Oberlin Conservatory. A side interest in contra-dance calling led her towards old-time music. That became her overarching passion when she returned to the Greensboro area. She met her soon-to-be band members at 2005’s Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, North Carolina, and got schooled in the Piedmont’s traditional music by Joe Thompson, an elderly African-American fiddle player who passed on to Rhiannon and her cohorts many of the songs that would comprise their early repertoire. The group’s 2010 release, Genuine Negro Jig, won a Grammy for best traditional folk album.

Tomorrow Is My Turn covers a much broader American musical landscape. And Rhiannon Giddens’s star turn is clearly today:

“It was clear the first time I heard her at rehearsal that Rhiannon is next in a long line of singers that includes Marian Anderson, Ethel Waters, Rosetta Tharp, Odetta, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone,” T Bone said about his new star. “We need that person in our culture. She is, in fact, that person in our culture.”

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To learn more about Rhiannon Giddens, please click the “play button and eavesdrop on our conversation.

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