Rhiannon Giddens is a force of nature in music, with an intrinsic glow that no Max Factor solution can provide. As founder of The Carolina Chocolate Drops, her superb musicianship and genuine commitment to reveal the heart of roots music led to acclaim, GRAMMY recognition, and her own personal epiphany of who she is. Her writing and contribution as a member of the New Basement Tapes on their Lost on the River project illuminated her in the eyes and ears of many listeners, and opened a collaboration with extraordinary producer, T Bone Burnett, with his own extraordinary, archival mind for the best in music. Burnett made possible what many artists envision, and never achieve, making “the album of your dreams,” titled Tomorrow Is My Turn, released last February. What the Durham, North Carolina beauty with her blazing, passionate voice is living now is another dream, on more stages than she ever imagined, looking dazzling, but still barefoot, as she explained in a January 10 profile on “CBS Sunday Morning.”
Even without realizing it, Rhiannon Giddens had her “coming out” party on September 25, 2013, on the New York City stage, for Another Day, Another Time the Showtime concert special in celebration of the film, Inside Llewyn Davis. Every beam of the theatre pounded from her passion. It was palpable that this music was felt to her deepest core. “No, no, no,” she says now, when asked if she realized that the evening was a turning point. It was not until reviews were in that she saw that something had changed, but she was reticent to remove her Chocolate Drops in any sense, because through their explorations together, she had found peace with her own heritage, having a white father, and a black mother. She no longer struggled with mixed-race conflicts. She found her identity as a North Carolinian. She had found a warm reception for herself and band mates, Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson, too. Their 2010 opus, Genuine Negro Jig won the Grammy award for Best Traditional Folk Album, and now her own album has nominations, and there's no doubt for T Bone Burnett that it is only the beginning. “I've been doing this over 50 years now. It's no mystery is who’s good and who's doing it—you see?” comes the producer’s rhetorical question. Rhiannon was ready when Burnett asked another question, “What’s your dream record?” Her list of songs was set to go.
How does the performer trained in Opera at Ohio’s Oberlin College feel about that life investment? “I'm grateful for the training,” she insists, knowing that may be the power in her projection of tone, but she's unapologetic that “there was so much other stuff, other music that I was getting interested in,” and that choice was again pivotal for Rhiannon Giddens. She and husband, Michael Laffan, Irish born, have together decided that now is the time for her career to have focus, “to ride that wave, and see if it brings a bigger opportunity. Gone are the rented minivans, now it's a tour bus big enough for Baker's dozen, so they traveled with their young son and daughter on tour, and spend the rest their time in Ireland. Her preference for performance in bare feet remains, too, even at the White House. “For me, bare feet are grounding. I feel connected to the earth in a way that I cannot be any other way.”
Her hair may have an up-do, her lips may be bright red, and her dress may cost a little more than strictly off the rack, but Giddens’ North Carolina roots still pulse through to her toes.