Going solo was never part of Rhiannon Giddens’ plan.
In the decade since she started Carolina Chocolate Drops in 2005 with Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson, the string band released five critically acclaimed albums, including “Genuine Negro Jig,” which won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album in 2010. And more importantly, the group had seen remarkable success in bringing African-American folk and old-time music back into the mainstream.
They shared stages with Taj Mahal and Bob Dylan, played music festivals such as Bonnaroo and even closed out Charleston’s Spoleto Festival USA in 2010.
And though original members Flemons and Robinson moved on to other projects by late 2013, Giddens still wasn’t thinking about a solo career. Hubby Jenkins, Malcolm Parson and Rowan Corbett would join forces with Giddens, and the Chocolate Drops would keep forging ahead.
But before that new lineup took shape, Giddens had no choice but to perform solo at the “Another Place, Another Time” concert at New York City’s Town Hall in September 2013 —a performance that would change the course of the next two years of her life.
The concert was inspired by the Coen Brothers’ film “Inside Llewyn Davis,” set in the legendary Greenwich Village folk scene in the early ’60s. More than a dozen folk musicians, some of whom appeared in the movie, performed that night, including Gillian Welch, Joan Baez, Marcus Mumford and the Avett Brothers.
But Giddens was the artist who caught T Bone Burnett’s attention.
Burnett produced the concert and the music for the movie. He’s also known for overseeing the music of “Walk the Line,” “O, Brother, Where Art Thou?” “Crazy Heart” and many other musical films.
Giddens sang Odetta’s “Water Boy” with chilling fervor, followed by two Gaelic songs, for which The New York Times called her “the real head turner” of the show. Burnett agreed.
“After that show, T Bone Burnett approached me about doing a solo record. Really, I had no intention of doing a solo record at that time. I was working on a Chocolate Drops record and going in that direction,” Giddens said. “It was kind of one of those once-in-a-lifetime things. When T Bone Burnett says, ‘I want to do a solo record with you in the next few months,’ you know, you kind of go, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ ”
The result is her 11-track solo debut, “Tomorrow is my Turn,” released in February. It’s a collection of gospel, country, folk and blues that, while delivered in the same old-timey vibe of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, allows Giddens to explore the depth of her chops beyond what she’s been able to do with the string band.
“(Burnett) really kind of pushed me to access things that I’d been letting lie dormant,” Giddens said. “My very first vocal demo I did years ago was called ‘Many Voices.’ It had all these different genres— it had gospel, it had country, it had Celtic. So that’s something that’s actually been part of me my whole life. This was an opportunity to let everything out.”
Giddens embarked on a tour last week to promote the record, and it will make a stop at the Charleston Music Hall on Tuesday. While the entire cast of the Carolina Chocolate Drops is playing with her, she said the line between the two types of performances will be crystal clear.
“The show is quite different than a Chocolate Drops show. I’m singing most of the songs, and the arrangements are more of a worldly flavor. We’ve got drums and bass and that automatically changes things,” she said. “And we throw in a couple of Chocolate Drops ones for sure, which is great, and it’s great to be able to do that, but the character of the songs is quite different. A lot of the stuff that I do on the solo record are things that I had put aside because I didn’t feel like they fit in the Carolina Chocolate Drops world. The show from top to bottom is a solo show.”
As for the future of the band, she said the Chocolate Drops are on hiatus for now, but that they will perform again in the future.
After collaborating on “Tomorrow is my Turn,” Burnett said he believes Giddens is America’s next great female vocalist.
“It was clear the first time I heard her at rehearsal that Rhiannon is next in a long line of singers that includes Marian Anderson, Ethel Waters, Rosetta Tharp, Odetta, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone,” he said. “We need that person in our culture. She is, in fact, that person in our culture.”
Her talent was further recognized by none other than the President of the United States. Giddens shared the stage at the White House earlier this year with Burnett, Lyle Lovett, Aretha Franklin and several others during a special concert celebrating gospel music.
That night, President Barack Obama told Giddens that he bought her new solo album and enjoyed it.
“So that was a pretty stand-out moment for me,” Giddens said with a laugh. “Like, thanks, president.”
Looking at all the positive reviews, Giddens said she’s “grateful” and “honored,” but that she doesn’t put too much stock in it.
“I see that stuff, but the reality is, I’m in the trenches,” she said. “On tour, I’m playing still to half-empty halls sometimes, and we’re still building. We’re still building a fan base, I’m still broke. ... And this is where my life should be. Creating a show, working day after day, getting music in front of people, and that’s where my attention is.”
But of course, popularity helps her cause as a folk musician who often uses the platform to discuss societal issues.
“Just giving a voice to the voiceless, that has been a tradition of folk music forever. And I think coming from that world, even though I’m straddling that realm of Americana, or whatever you want to call it, I still cherish that and hold that dear,” she said, adding that, as a history buff, she hopes her music “acknowledges where we are on the continuum.”
“I try to take stories that I’ve read and make these songs and try to connect in an emotional way,” she said.
One recent event that inspired her to write an emotional song was the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in June. Soon after the tragedy, Giddens released “Cry No More,” a powerful folk single with an accompanying music video, filmed in a dimly lit church in her hometown of Greensboro, N.C.
For the caption of the video posted on YouTube, Giddens said: “The massacre at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June is just the latest in a string of racially charged events that have broken my heart. There are a lot of things to fix in this world, but history says if we don’t address this canker, centuries in the making, these things will continue to happen. No matter what level privilege you have, when the system is broken, everybody loses. We all have to speak up when injustice happens. No matter what. And music is one of the best ways I know to do so.”
Looking back, Giddens said, that song just “came out.”
“I was like, ‘I have to do something with this. It’s going to obsess me until we do something. Let’s record it, let’s get it out there.’ I don’t know what it does. But I just think as artists, we have to make art based on what’s moving us, ” she said. “I didn’t want to say anything, but I said something through song and connected it to 500 years of what’s been going on.”
That concept of constantly teasing out threads of American heritage is at the center of Giddens’ music, and it’s not just for art’s sake. It’s a way to analyze, make sense of, and sometimes celebrate the vast cultural diversity in this country.
At Celtic festivals, when Giddens says she’s been looked at like “a freak” by crowds and fellow performers, she often gives people a history lesson of blacks in the South who grew up speaking Gaelic.
“It’s a fascinating piece of American history, and it really is what American history is all about. — It’s all the different cultures from Europe, from everywhere, that came here, mixed with indigenous people,” she said. “That is the heritage of our music, and I think it’s important to remind people of that.”
Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail