Bluegrass Raleigh

As Rhiannon Giddens’ star rises, she’s using her voice to speak out beyond the music

Rhiannon Giddens in concert at the N.C. Museum of Art in Raleigh Aug. 9, 2017. The Grammy-winning musician and rising actress on CMT’s “Nashville” will be the keynote speaker at the International Bluegrass Music Association conference.
Rhiannon Giddens in concert at the N.C. Museum of Art in Raleigh Aug. 9, 2017. The Grammy-winning musician and rising actress on CMT’s “Nashville” will be the keynote speaker at the International Bluegrass Music Association conference. ssharpe@newsobserver.com

However busy you think you are, Rhiannon Giddens is busier. And that cuts way into her casual time watching television or listening to music – because she’s just too busy making both.

“People ask if I watch ‘Game of Thrones,’ but nah, I don’t have time,” she said with a laugh recently.

She spoke via Skype from the quaintly named burgh of Limerick, Ireland. That’s where the Greensboro native lives with her husband and children when she’s not on the road.

“I have three things in my life,” she said. “There’s music, performing and projects and all that; research, reading and processing; and then my kids, my family. That’s all I have room for and I’d have to drop one to get good at ‘Game of Thrones.’ It’s not just the time, it’s the mental space.”

The work has paid off with an acclaimed series of solo albums – following her run with the Grammy-winning string band Carolina Chocolate Drops – and a recurring role on the fifth season of the CMT drama “Nashville.”

This past summer, Giddens, 40, became one of the few musicians to play both Newport’s Folk and Jazz festivals the same year (a select group that includes Norah Jones and Louisiana bandleader Jon Batiste).

Tuesday, just over a year after she won the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, Giddens will deliver the keynote speech at this week’s International Bluegrass Music Association conference. The conference and accompanying Wide Open Bluegrass music festival are in Raleigh for the fifth year through Saturday.

The accolades from her industry are significant. Last year, Giddens became the first woman and first African-American to win the Martin prize, a prestigious award that carries a $50,000 award and whose past winners include Noam Pikelny of Punch Brothers and Giddens’ fellow North Carolinian Jens Kruger.

While it’s not uncommon for a banjo player to deliver the IBMA keynote, it is unusual for one as politically inclined as Giddens. She won her Grammy Award for an album with the provocative title “Genuine Negro Jig.” And Sunday night at Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Giddens and her band took a knee onstage in solidarity with protesting NFL football players.

Becoming a songwriter

At the time of this interview, Giddens was still early in the speech-writing process – “I gather data and then think and think,” as she put it – but there are obviously plenty of potential subjects out there. Last month’s racially charged violence over Confederate statues in Charlottesville, Va., had her shaking her head, as much at people’s reactions to the violence and its cause as the actions themselves.

“It shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody,” she said. “One of the books I’ve been reading lately is ‘Black Majority,’ about slavery in South Carolina going back to colonial days. When you understand how deep this is and how long it’s gone on and how deeply it’s woven into the fabric of the U.S., it’s not a surprise now. I guess the big thing is that they’re not wearing hoods now, which is bold. These are desperate times, my friend.”

This perspective, historically grounded and also up-to-date, is very much ingrained in Giddens’ second solo album released this year, “Freedom Highway.”

The title track, a gospel-protest anthem originally cut by the Staple Singers in 1965, is just as relevant in the time of Black Lives Matter as it was in the civil-rights era. But aside from that song and a few other covers, Giddens wrote most of the songs on “Freedom Highway” herself, which she acknowledges was something of a surprise.

“When I went solo three years ago, that’s when I became a songwriter,” she said. “So nobody with my label or management expected ‘Freedom Highway’ and I didn’t, either – until suddenly it was ready. I’m a different kind of singer, not really a ‘singer-songwriter’ who does all originals. I’m more project-based.

“But songs are starting to percolate again. I started writing again a couple of days ago. I can’t make it do anything, not yet, although I can tell stuff is in here. But the more I chase it, the further away it gets. So I just keep reading, take it all in, and stuff comes out.”

Giddens’ current reading includes “The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America,” and various writings about the 1898 race riots in Wilmington – “a huge story that’s almost never talked about, with ramifications still today,” she said.

And eventually, more scripts might be added to the reading pile if the producers of “Nashville” opt to bring her back for another season. On the show, she played Hanna Lee “Hallie” Jordan, a social worker with show-business aspirations and a complicated personal life.

“It would be nice if music and acting were more compatible, because I’m pretty into the idea of doing more,” she said. “But they’re difficult to reconcile. Music is scheduled with gigs six to 12 months in advance, and on a TV series they might call you in tomorrow. You’re supposed to be available like that, and it was difficult to meld the two.

“I do enjoy acting a lot and I’ll do more of it, if it works. Maybe if I’m ready to take a break from music. But by then I’ll be too old to act so it won’t matter.”

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi

Details

Rhiannon Giddens will deliver the IBMA keynote address at 4 p.m. Tuesday at the Raleigh Convention Center. Attendance requires an IBMA conference registration. For details, see ibma.org.

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