A photo taken for an album coming later in 2019 features Rhiannon Giddens and her collaborator Francesco Turrisi sitting on a red carpet, shot from above, with a global array of instruments around them. There are lutes, ouds, fiddles, various banjos, an accordion and drums from the Middle East fanned out in a circle like a mandala or a compass. Whether this makes you think of a voyage or an explosion, Rhiannon Giddens is certainly at the center of a lot of energy and movement these days.
A new album is usually the story hook for an in-demand, mid-career artist like Giddens, but it was down the list of priority topics when I visited with Giddens recently at the Nashville Ballet Martin Center for the interview posted here. It's a concise but wide-ranging talk briefly enhanced by a crying tiny ballerina about half way through.
What’s an opera-trained fiddle and banjo playing songwriter doing on a weekday afternoon at the Nashville Ballet? The answer is just one of many ongoing pursuits in a creative life that even she says is unrecognizable from five years ago.
“Oh my God, it’s like ‘who was that person?’ I don’t even know,” Giddens says with a smile. “My collaborative opportunities have really grown since I left the band (the Grammy Award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops), because it’s a lot easier to do things as your own person. It's really allowed me to focus on the woman side of things, which is hard to do when you’re in a band full of boys, you know? Front and center for me are women’s issues and women of color, in particular. Dealing with the history of what we’ve had to go through in this country and what does that mean, and creating platforms for other women of color to have their voices heard.”
The ballet brings all of those themes together. It’s a new work called Lucy Negro Redux, a blend of choreography by the Nashville Ballet’s 20-year artistic director Paul Vasterling, original music by Giddens and Turrisi and spoken word by Nashville poet Caroline Randall Williams. This multi-layered, high-concept production has its world premiere Feb. 8-10 at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center.
Williams, the daughter of Nashville author and songwriter Alice Randall and a writer in residence at Fisk University, became transfixed by a theory that Shakespeare had a black lover. There is some evidence that the Dark Lady of his most sensual sonnets was a brothel owner who went by Lucy. In her 2015 book Lucy Negro, Redux, Williams mingles poetry and memoir as she explores the implications of her literary hero embracing (and then some) a woman of color and finding in her beauty and inspiration.
The book (which will be reissued in February on Third Man Books) inspired Vasterling to conceive a ballet. He and Williams recruited Giddens who’d already been working with Turrisi, a conservatory trained jazz pianist who crosses genres and boundaries as a student of Mediterranean folk music and rhythms. The musical score (which is even now being refined) is a mingling of Elizabethan textures and modes, opera, jazz and colors from Africa and the American Deep South. “So you have lots of different platforms being melded together,” Giddens says. “This is not just a ballet. It’s a ballet based on poetry with spoken word in it and new music written by myself and Francesco. It’s a really beautiful idea.”
Giddens has been building a world of ideas around her performing and writing career from the beginning. The Carolina Chocolate Drops, founded in 2005, made raucous, emotional and exciting music, and they brought a narrative as well – a revival and reconsideration of African-American string band music that shook up the standard story of where bluegrass and country music came from.
Then on a solo debut album, Giddens platformed songs from Patsy Cline, Geeshie Wiley, Elizabeth Cotten and Nina Simone, revealing more vocal range and power than she had to that point. Next came her interpretation of the Staple Singers with Freedom Highway and more of her original songwriting, including the searing lament of slavery, rape and family separation “At The Purchaser’s Option,” which has been adapted into Lucy Negro Redux. She won the Steve Martin Prize for innovation on the banjo and then, in 2017 the gold ring for any intellectual artist, a MacArthur Fellowship grant. It’s given her time and a mandate to reach backward and forward and outward.
Opera, from her past and in certain ways from our past, is back on her plate. Giddens studied voice at the Oberlin Conservatory early on, and her passion for the art form hasn’t faded. Recently she accepted an invitation from the Metropolitan Opera in New York to host its Aria Code podcast, which mingles commentary, interview and music from the Met’s archives. Coming up, in December of 2020, Giddens will give back to her North Carolina home town when she sings, for the first time, the lead female role in Porgy & Bess at a new hall for the Greensboro Opera. (Tickets are already on sale if you want to truly plan ahead.)
Giddens’ ability to slip seamlessly from fine arts to folk music acts as a kind of force multiplier, giving her roots projects a wider reach and ambition. Case in point is the quartet Our Native Daughters, set to release a first-ever album on Feb. 22. Recorded over several days in Louisiana by trad master Dirk Powell, it features Giddens along with three younger black women whom she recruited into a Smithsonian Folkways super-group. Amythyst Kiah is a songwriter who studied at the East Tennessee State University bluegrass and old-time program and who slayed at last Fall’s AmericanaFest. Allison Russell is half of the acclaimed duo Birds of Chicago. And Leyla McCalla is a Hatian-American cellist and songwriter who’s carving out a unique sound based in New Orleans. She’s been part of the Chocolate Drops and she just released her third LP, The Capitalist Blues.
Giddens had been thinking through a project for Folkways and, she says “It took this path, down to really talking about the woman of color’s experience in America and having a platform to respond to that in an artistic way.” She told the three women to “bring your banjo” and come ready to adapt old songs into something personal and novel. She doesn’t use the term ‘mentor’ with these emerging performers; she suggests ‘facilitate.’ “That’s what we need to do for each other,” she says. “If I’m in a position where somebody asks me, who has power, I’m going to spread that around. I think that’s what you’re supposed to do.”