Rhiannon Giddens (born February 21, 1977) is an American musician. She is known as the lead singer, violinist, banjo player and a founding member of the Grammy-winning country, blues and old-time music band Carolina Chocolate Drops. She is a native of Greensboro, North Carolina, an alumna of the elite North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, and a 2000 graduate of Oberlin Conservatory where she studied opera. In addition to her work with the Drops, Giddens has released two solo albums: Tomorrow Is My Turn (2015) and Freedom Highway (2017).
In 2005, Giddens, who at that time was spending time competing in Scottish music competitions, attended the Black Banjo Then and Now Gathering, in Boone, North Carolina. There she met Dom Flemons and Sule Greg Wilson. The three started playing together professionally as a "postmodern string band", Sankofa Strings. During that same time period, Giddens was also a regular caller at local contra dances and featured in a Celtic music band called Gaelwynd. Later in 2005, after both Gaelwynd and Sankofa Strings had released CD albums, Giddens and Flemons teamed up with other musicians and expanded the Sankofa Strings sound into what was to become the Grammy winning Carolina Chocolate Drops.
In 2007, Giddens contributed fiddle, banjo, "flat-footin'" dancing and additional vocals to Talitha MacKenzie's album Indian Summer.
Performing as a soprano, Giddens and mezzo-soprano Cheryse McLeod Lewis formed a duo called Eleganza to release a CD in 2009. Because I Knew You... consists of classical, religious, theater, and movie music. Giddens and Lewis were middle school classmates who reconnected after college while working in the same office. The friends started singing together in 2003, but did not begin recording until 2008.
As of November 12, 2013, Giddens is now the only original member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
In 2013 Giddens began pushing further into her solo career. Giddens participated in "Another Day, Another Time", a concert inspired by the Coen brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis. Many critics have stated that Giddens had the best performance at what was called "the concert of the year". Late in 2013, Giddens contributed the standout a cappella track "We Rise" to the LP We Are Not For Sale: Songs of Protest by the NC Music Love Army – a collective of activist musicians from North Carolina founded by Jon Lindsay and Caitlin Cary. Giddens' protest song joins contributions from many other Carolina musical luminaries on the Lindsay-produced compilation (11/26/13 via Redeye Distribution), which was created to support the NC NAACP and the Moral Monday movement.
In early 2014 Giddens recorded for Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes alongside Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Taylor Goldsmith and Jim James. The album was produced by T-Bone Burnett and is a compilation of partial, unreleased lyrics written by Bob Dylan.
In February 2015, Giddens released her debut solo album, Tomorrow Is My Turn, on Nonesuch Records. Also produced by Burnett, the album includes songs made famous by Patsy Cline, Odetta, Dolly Parton, and Nina Simone, among others. The Wall Street Journal said the album "confirms the arrival of a significant talent whose voice and distinctive approach communicate the simmering emotion at the core of the songs." Additionally, the Los Angeles Times called the album "a collection that should solidify her status as one of the bright new lights in pop music."
In July 2015, she had a big stage at world music folk and dance festival at TFF Rudolstadt in Germany. Her performance was also broadcast live by the German national public radio Deutschlandfunk. Rhiannon appears on Jon Lindsay's single "Ballad of Lennon Lacy" (Redeye Distribution, August 21). The song tackles the mysterious hanging death of Lennon Lacy, a black teen from rural Bladenboro, North Carolina. The case is currently under investigation by the FBI, and widely suspected to be a lynching.
On November 27, 2015, to coincide with the Black Friday Record Store Day event, Giddens released "Factory Girl" (EP) on Nonesuch Records, which contained music culled from the same T Bone Burnett–produced sessions that yielded Tomorrow Is My Turn. A digital version of Factory Girl was made available December 11, 2015. The sessions for the album and EP took place in Los Angeles and Nashville, with a multi-generational group of players assembled by Burnett. Musicians on Factory Girl include Burnett; fiddle player Gabe Witcher and double bassist Paul Kowert of Punch Brothers; percussionist Jack Ashford of Motown's renowned Funk Brothers; drummer Jay Bellerose; guitarist Colin Linden; veteran Nashville session bassist Dennis Crouch; and Giddens's Carolina Chocolate Drops touring band-mates, multi-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins and beat-boxer Adam Matta.
Rhiannon appeared on Jools Holland's Hootenanny on December 31, 2015, shown on BBC Two. She performed songs from her 2015 album Tomorrow Is My Turn, including Waterboy and a cover of St James Infirmary Blues with Tom Jones.
She was selected to take part in Transatlantic Sessions in January 2016. This collaboration between American and Celtic musicians is a coveted honor. The ensemble performed as part of Celtic Connections in Glasgow, and a short UK/Irish tour. Her performances on the tour included the stirring tribute to David Bowie "It Ain't Easy". Later in the year, Giddens became the first American to be honoured as Folk Singer of the Year at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. Later in the year, it was also announced that she would be receiving the prestigious Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. Winning this award makes Giddens both the only woman and the only person of color to receive the prize in its 6-year history. In 2016, it was also announced that Giddens and the Carolina Chocolate Drops would be inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame.
In 2017, Giddens became only the fourth musician to perform at both the Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals. Later that year, she delivered the keynote address at the World of Bluegrass Business Conference 2017. According to Bluegrass Today, "Giddens shattered long-held stereotypes...By the time she was done, she had systematically dismantled the myth of a homogenous Appalachia." In June 2017, Giddens appeared in the multi award-winning documentary The American Epic Sessions, directed by Bernard MacMahon, where she recorded "One Hour Mama" and English folk ballad "Pretty Saro", on the restored first electrical sound recording system from the 1920s. Both performances were released on Music from The American Epic Sessions: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. Upon hearing the playback of these direct-to-disc recordings recordings, she exclaimed "you feel like your soul is coming out of the speaker."
Rhiannon has been announced as the Guest Curator for Cambridge Folk Festival 2018. In October 2017, she was named one of the 2017 class of MacArthur "Genius" Fellows. Giddens was selected as the second ever guest curator of the Cambridge Folk Festival which will take place in 2018.
The Nashville Ballet announced in 2018 that Rhiannon Giddens has been commissioned to write the music for Lucy Negro, Redux, a new dance choreographed by artistic director, Paul Vasterling. Based on the book of the same name by Caroline Randall Williams, the ballet is scheduled to premiere in February 2019.
In 2017 and 2018, she appeared in the fifth and sixth seasons of the CMT's Nashville as Hannah Lee "Hallie" Jordan, a social worker with the voice of an angel. Hallie is a significant character in Juliette's storyline. To date, Giddens has appeared in 10 episodes and has performed several songs that have been made available following each episode.
Giddens is biracial in ancestry. She married Irish musician Michael Laffan in 2007. The couple have a daughter, Aoife, and a son, Caoimhín. Giddens has homes in Greensboro, North Carolina, and Limerick, Ireland.
Awards and nominations