On the Beat

Rhiannon Giddens, NC musician with ‘unlimited talent,’ makes history with Steve Martin Prize

North Carolina’s Rhiannon Giddens, one of the most acclaimed performers in the universe of contemporary folk music, has won the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass.

She is both the first woman and the first African-American to do so.

The 39-year-old Greensboro native, a co-founder of Triangle string band Carolina Chocolate Drops, is the seventh winner of the prize created by the banjo-playing humorist. It carries an unrestricted cash prize of $50,000 and a bronze sculpture created by the artist Eric Fischl.

“Rhiannon has made a rare contribution to American music,” Martin said in a statement. “She – along with the Carolina Chocolate Drops – has resurrected and revitalized an important part of banjo history.”

The trio of Giddens, Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson met in 2005 at the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, forming as the Chocolate Drops in the Triangle soon afterward. After years of apprenticing with Mebane fiddler Joe Thompson and other old-time elders, the Chocolate Drops cracked the pop charts with their provocatively titled 2010 album “Genuine Negro Jig,” which also won a Grammy Award.

Giddens, who splits her time between North Carolina and Ireland nowadays, has since launched a solo career and become a rising star in her own right. She scored another Grammy nomination with last year’s T Bone Burnett-produced solo debut “Tomorrow Is My Turn.” She’s also a new cast member in the upcoming fifth season of the television series “Nashville” – reportedly as “a social worker with the voice of an angel.”

David Holt, who featured Giddens on the first season of his public television show “State of Music” last year, calls her “one of those people with unlimited talent.”

“She can do anything and she’s intelligent, beautiful, kind,” Holt said of the classically trained Giddens. “She’s got it all, so don’t bother with jealousy, because it does no good. Just sit back and admire.”

For all of Giddens’ accomplishments, the Steve Martin Prize might be her best breakthrough yet. The award has been around since 2010 and is selected by a board including J.D. Crowe, Tony Trischka, Bela Fleck, Alison Brown and other banjo luminaries. Past winners include Noam Pikelny of Punch Brothers, Danny Barnes of Bad Livers and Lonesome River Band’s Sammy Shelor.

Giddens is the second North Carolinian to win the prize, following Jens Kruger in 2013. As with the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius grant” fellowships, there is no application process for the Steve Martin Prize. It gets decided behind the scenes and arrives like a bolt out of the blue.

“I had no idea I was even in consideration,” Giddens said. “It feels like some pretty great recognition from such great players and advocates, but it’s not even about me. It’s more about the style of banjo that I champion, which is very different from bluegrass. History is a big part of it, and for me this is another step toward tying us back together.

“Banjo is such a universal instrument, America’s instrument and a part of both some great and not-so-great things in our history,” she added. “But both things are out there and if you don’t talk about one, you miss out on the other.”

At the moment, Giddens does not have any Triangle performances scheduled. But she should play at least one local date in 2017, after her next album is out. She’s working on that now; and perhaps not coincidentally, it’s more banjo-intensive than “Tomorrow Is My Turn.”

“Most of it features my banjo pretty heavily,” she said. “So it’s in a pretty different direction.”

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi

Rhiannon Giddens

Born in Greensboro Feb. 21, 1977

Graduate of Oberlin Conservatory of Music, 2000 (opera)

Married to Michael Laffan since 2007

Two children (daughter Aoife and son Caoimhin)