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    Rhiannon Giddens is best known for her work as a singer and founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an old-time string band that explores the deepest roots of African-American innovation and influence in America's popular music, incorporating jazz, blues, and folk. Genuine Negro Jig won a Grammy in 2010 for Best Traditional Folk Album, proving that you can have a profound cultural impact while providing a genuinely entertaining and accessible sound.

    Giddens has been involved in a number of other projects, including collaborating on The New Basement Tapes (unfinished and unreleased songs by Bob Dylan) with Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford (Mumford & Sons), and Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes). Her rousing live performance in the New York concert celebrating music from the Coen brothers' film Inside Llewyn Davis led to T Bone Burnett asking to produce her solo album. Tomorrow Is My Turn, released earlier this year, is Giddens' interpretation of songs from women who have helped shape and define American folk music.

    A supremely talented singer and multi-instrumentalist, Giddens brings a thoughtful and intelligent approach to interpreting music that, for whatever reasons, may have been lost, forgotten, or never fully appreciated. Represented on her new album are songs from the unknown to the iconic - Geeshie Wiley, Odetta, Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline. She acknowledges that "being aware of where you come from and who came before you" is a guiding force as she follows her own path. 

    One musical pioneer included on Tomorrow Is My Turn is someone who Giddens says doesn't always get her due. "Sister Rosetta Tharpe is one of those people who doesn't get enough credit for anything... her interpretations, or her invention on the guitar." She credits Tharpe with bridging the gap between religious and secular music, as well as helping to create the sound of rock-and-roll on the electric guitar. Singing Tharpe's "Up Above My Head," Giddens showcases both the old-style gospel vocals blended seamlessly with the free-wheeling rock-and-roll spirit.

    "You do all the background work and you listen to a lot of different kinds of music. You work on your technique and stuff, but when it comes down to you recording the song, it's just gotta be you and the song, and whatever spirit that song has, you just have to get out of the way and let it live."

    A native of Greensboro, North Carolina, Giddens grew up with parents who appreciated music, and she sang in a youth choir, but it wasn't until her teenage years that she thought of music as a serious career path. She studied opera at the Oberlin Conservatory, and even though she went another way, Giddens told me that she tries to keep one foot in the classical repertoire.  She released an album of classical vocal duets with mezzo-soprano Cheryse McLeod and has performed with the NC Symphony. 

    "I was very lucky that I got invited to do a program with the Kronos Quartet a year ago, and so I needed to get arrangements. The fiddler and arranger on my record, Gabe Witcher, who's with the Punch Brothers, and kind of a genius, did these beautiful string quartet arrangements of my songs." These arrangements include three of her own unreleased songs, plus the title song of her new album. Having these ready to hand was a perfect opportunity for the Louisville Orchestra to pitch in by providing a string quartet to join forces with Giddens' own band when she comes to town. 

    Considering her background and training, I asked Giddens if she had ever thought about a role in musical theater or opera. "If I was offered something, I would take it! I miss the drama and the acting. I get to do a little of that in my show, as I inhabit each character, but I really enjoy that aspect of opera."

    Giddens also expects to continue writing more original songs. "I've had these experiences and worked on the Basement Tapes that kind of pushed me into it, and I'm really glad for that because I do think I have something to say. If I think it's a song from a perspective that hasn't been presented that much, or has been underrepresented - that's my interest. I want to feel that I'm offering something unique...or unique-ish!" She qualified, with a laugh.

    In addition to her extensive current tour, Giddens is already looking ahead to the next challenge. "I've been working on this project trying to resurrect music from the turn of the century. I call it "Black Broadway" music. Music that was written in the first decade of the 1900s by a group of black artists and musicians in New York City, one of whom went to Oberlin and was classically trained and has written some beautiful things.... I've gotten a few pieces orchestrated and performed them with the NC Symphony, and I'm trying to get a whole show worked around that time."

    Fans will also have a new EP to look forward to, due around Thanksgiving. It will be a collection of five songs that, due to length, didn't quite make it on to Tomorrow Is My Turn

    Giddens' show at the Mercury Ballroom will feature an eclectic mix of songs from her solo album, The New Basement Tapes, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who also form the core of her touring band. The concert is this Thursday, September 17 at 8 p.m. with special guests from the Louisville Orchestra. Tickets are available from the Mercury Ballroom website

    Listen to Rhiannon sing "Don't Let It Trouble Your Mind," written by Dolly Parton:

    Photo Credit: Dan Winters

    Selena Frye's picture

    About Selena Frye

    I'm a writer and editor living in Louisville since 1996. I'm originally from the Blue Ridge of Virginia.

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