While Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free may have taken the top spot in both the ND readers and critics polls, Rhiannon Giddens dominated the past year just as thoroughly as Isbell did in 2013.
She was everywhere — touring North America as well as Europe, performing at the White House, yet also doing workshops off the beaten path, such as the Augusta Heritage Festival in Elkins, West Virginia. Her excellent album, Tomorrow Is My Turn, was selected as the runner-up by ND critics and tied for sixth by the readers. Giddens already won a Grammy with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and this abum also been nominated for a Grammy. So I know I am not alone in my unabashed appreciation.
Few other artists would, or could, record Dolly Parton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Jean Ritchie, Nina Simone, Odetta, and Patsy Cline on the same album and make it a cohesive whole, as if they belonged together all along, as if it were inevitable.
Nothing happens overnight, though. Giddens began in opera, graduating from Oberlin Conservatory with a degree in vocal performance. She then turned to traditional folk and roots music, which led to rebirthing the African-American stringband, a Grammy Award, working on T Bone Burnett’s Another Day, Another Time and The New Basement Tapes. Then came her follow-up EP Factory Girl, as if to drive home the point.
While her two excellent records from 2015 draw from many sources, when you experience Giddens live, she becomes a musical force like few others.
Save for the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Berg’s Lulu, my musical highlight of the year was Giddens’ multi-song set with the Kronos Quartet at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville in March. The centerpiece of that set was the album’s title song, written by Marcell Stellman and Charles Aznavour, both Europeans. Nina Simone’s original recording of the tune could have been a James Bond theme song, but she later made it a racial declaration. During that set with Kronos, Giddens took the song yet another step further, one for all humanity while retaining Simone’s essence.
Like a good number of others, I first saw Giddens at MerleFest in 2007 as part of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Formed just two years prior, they were easily the most talked-about artists that year. Wherever I went, people were asking one another whether they had seen them. I caught their every set that weekend.
During the past year, I was fortunate to see Giddens on six occassions, and each successive time I saw something just a bit different, or was I experiencing something new in myself? More likely, I was continually catching up with her.
The real turning point I witnessed may have come on September 29, 2013, at New York’s Town Hall during the Another Day, Another Time concert celebrating the music of Inside Llewyn Davis. It was apparent that a significant number of audience members were unfamiliar with her, but she brought down the house with a stunning two-song set. She shared the stage with Joan Baez, Jack White, Gillian Welch, Patti Smith, Marcus Mumford, and the Avett Brothers, but she stole the show, much like Gillian Welch stole the Down From the Mountain concert, which celebrated the first Coen Brothers and T Bone collaboration, at the Ryman years before.
As our editor, Kim Ruehl, surmised in her year-end assessment, 2015 was the year Rhiannon Giddens came into her own. Those of us who were fortunate enough to have seen her are witnesses to that. Nor are we alone. The national press is finally catching up. Nate Chinen of The New York Times selected her Nov. 13 performance in New York as one of the best shows of the year — the only Americana artist to be included by that publication’s four music critics. And just two days ago she was profiled on CBS Sunday Morning.
Here, then, is an appreciation of Rhiannon Giddens’ musical and personal talents as expressed in photographs.