[Interview] Rhiannon Giddens

A star is born

Sometimes, there is a moment when life as you have known it changes, and you realize it will never be the same.

When Rhiannon Giddens sang Odetta’s “Waterboy” in 2013 at “Another Day, Another Time,” a concert to celebrate the music from the movie “Inside Llewyn Davis,” people who weren’t aware of her were dumbfounded.

Giddens, who has a Grammy as a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and three nominations for solo projects, joins ragtime singer Pokey LaFarge and bluegrass band Steep Canyon Rangers for the second American Originals program with conductor John Morris Russell and the Cincinnati Pops Friday through Sunday at Music Hall.

By the way, less than a month ago, she was named a MacArthur Fellow, better known as the program that confers the Genius Grant with a no-strings-attached $625,000 award. The money will help fund a project dear to the North Carolina native.

“I have talked in interviews about this 1898 massacre in Wilmington, North Carolina,” says Giddens where whites overthrew the legitimately elected local government, drove black leaders from the city and killed as many as 60 people. “It was a political coup, the only political coup that has happened on American soil.

“It is an amazing story and astonishing that that it isn’t better known. I think it has ramifications for what is going on today. It’s really an important part of American history.”

Those events happen to dovetail with the timeline of the American Originals program, which focuses on the heritage of popular music at the turn of the 20th century.

“I had wanted to work with the Cincinnati Pops anyway because it was a great orchestra, but when they told me (the program), I about lost it,” Giddens says. “I was (shrieking) ‘Oh my God!’ It was great, it was really simpatico and awesome and cool.

“Plus, I know them all (LaFarge and the Rangers) well, so I’m excited to hang out for a few days.”

Music has a large audience, but concerts and records combined can’t reach the number of people that a television show commands. Last season, Giddens joined the cast of “Nashville,” the prime-time soap opera set in Music City, and millions of people discovered Hallie Jordan, the social worker with the angelic voice.

“Wellllll, I’m not really that big a part of the show. I don’t know what kind of impact it has outside of my realm, but it has been an amazing experience. There’s a few Hallie fans out there. And oddly enough, in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, there’s a lot of ‘Nashville’ fans.”

Giddens laughs easily while recounting her busy year, grateful for her good fortune and without false modesty. She takes her work seriously, but savors the journey. If the skies parted on that September night four years ago, the planets have since aligned for this American original.

Giddens also spoke on other topics that helped shape her career.

Question: You were an opera major at Oberlin College. How did it help you face the world?

Giddens: I don’t know if it helped me face the world, but it certainly gave me tools to figure out how I wanted to face the world. I learned a lot there, it’s an excellent music school. I actually got into the Cincinnati conservatory (University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music) for grad school. But I didn’t wind up going because I was kind of burned out and wanted to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I wasn’t sure it was opera. But (Oberlin) was a great education, I learned a lot about music and it has stood me very well.

Question: Has the response to this year’s “Freedom Highway” (which she describes as “songs based on slave narratives from the 1800s, African-American experiences of the last century, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and headlines from streets of Ferguson and Baltimore today”) been more than you imagined? (Watch her perform “At the Purchaser’s Option)

Giddens: It’s been beautiful, I have to say. When we made that record, we just knew it needed to be made – that’s myself and my co-producer (Dirk Powell) – and I just hoped that people would get what was being said. That’s what’s been kind of an overwhelming response to me … I haven’t had to explain myself as much as I was afraid I would. So, that’s huge to me. It means that I was at the right place at the right time. You know, you can make a piece of art, but you might be at the wrong time, the wrong timing of society and art and culture. It just felt like it hit at the right time. That’s all you can hope for, really.

Question: Producer T-Bone Burnett chose you for “The New Basement Tapes” project with Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford (Mumford & Sons), Jim James (My Morning Jacket) and Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes) in 2014. You took lyrics that Bob Dylan wrote in the 1960s, but never recorded, then crafted original songs from them. What did you learn?

Giddens: It was different for me. I was coming in as a very new songwriter, I hadn’t really been writing songs. I had written a few, like, folks songs. This was very (different) … lots of electric instruments and people I didn’t know. I was the only woman and I was used to working in a black string band, and I was the only black person around for days. It was a weird transition for me, and I was grateful for it because I had to face some stuff to get through that in a successful way. It was a lot of growth for me as an artist and I’m super grateful for the opportunity.

Question: You sang Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head” at “The Gospel Tradition: In Performance at the White House” in 2015. What did that mean to you?

Giddens: It sure meant a lot. I’d been prayin’ and hopin’ that I would make it in there before the end of (President Barack) Obama’s term and I did. To be able to do that and to witness the goodwill that those guys had built in that place. It was a night that I’ll never forget. It was just really special in a lot of ways. And for reasons that are obvious now, it is even more special, so I’m just grateful that I got to be a part of it.


Originally published in the Enquirer October 2017


Each week, Bob Hust and Bill Thompson feature the best songs – old and new – from artists they have loved for many years and others they have just discovered. The best songs transport people to a time and place. That’s the foundation of BS&B.

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