Rhiannon Giddens celebrates New Year’s Eve in Park City
Rhiannon Giddens’ career is full of highlights.
The singer and multi-instrumentalist is the cofounder of the Grammy Award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops as well as the Celtic ensemble Gaelwynd.
In October Giddens was one of 24 recipients of the MacArthur Fellows “Genius Grant,” which its website, macfound.org, describes as an “investment in a person’s originality, insight and potential” for those who have shown “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits.”
She also released her second solo album, “Freedom Highway,” which was nominated for Album of the Year by the Americana Music Honors and Awards.”
Giddens also portrays Hallie Jordan in the TV series “Nashville.”.
All of those accomplishments will take a backseat when the Park City Institute presents Giddens at the Eccles Center on Jan. 31, Giddens told The Park Record during a phone call from her home in Ireland.
“It won’t a Rhiannon Giddens show,” Giddens said, laughing. “It will be a New Year’s Eve show with Rhiannon Giddens, because the thing about doing something like a New Year’s Eve show is that you want to craft something that’s going to fit the occasion. Nobody is coming out on New Year’s Eve to get super serious, you know what I mean?”
The concert, which features songs from “Freedom Highway,” will also include songs from past records and songs that have yet to be recorded, she said.
“I just have to figure out what’s going to send people into the new year with a good spirit, and we have plenty of material to do that,” Giddens said. “Once the show gets closer, I’ll start thinking about it. I know I just want to get in there and have a good time.”
Although Giddens has turned the public on to American folk music, especially in the early African-American string band tradition, “Freedom Highway” is her “big statement” concerning civil rights. In fact, the title track is a cover of The Staples Singer’s 1965 protest song.
“Clearly when you look at African-American music, you will stumble upon civil rights issues,” she said. “That grew more and more and I really stepped into it with ‘Freedom Highway.’ While I’ve always been engaged, I wanted to really focus and sing about what’s been going on for hundreds of years, you know?”
Music began flowing through Giddens’ veins when she was a child.
“I grew up singing in my family, but I never thought about becoming a professional musician until my last year in high school,” she said. “I went to a choral camp and decided I wanted to be a singer.”
She went so far as to study opera at Oberlin College and graduated in 2000.
“I felt a little stifled in that world and wanted to make things happen by myself, rather than wait to be picked for something after an audition,” Giddens said. “So I started getting into folk music and basked in the American string-band tradition and that was it. That’s what lit the fire.”
She formed the Carolina Chocolate Drops in 2005 with guitar and banjoist Dom Flemons and percussionist Sule Greg Wilson.
The band’s 2010 album “Genuine Negro Jig” won the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album.
“Winning the Grammy for the Chocolate Drops record was special because we were getting recognized for a musical tradition that had been ignored for some time,” Giddens said. “But I do take them with stride. Getting awards and being nominated are great recognitions that the message I want to say is getting out there, but those things are kind of like a double-edged sword.”
Giddens said that means she has to be careful to not get caught up in award seeking.
“Someone once told me that if you believe the good press you have to believe the bad press,” she said. “I tend to agree with that, but you have to be very careful with that kind of stuff.”
Case in point, “Freedom Highway,” which Giddens considers her best work to date, wasn’t nominated for a Grammy.
“My whole team was like ‘What?’ for not getting an nomination for ‘Freedom Highway,’ but that’s the way it goes,” she said. “I mean does my music mean anything less because I didn’t get nominated, even though I’ve gotten nominations for my last four records? No. But I can either go back and say, ‘Well, it’s not a good record’ or say, ‘The timing was off.’”
Taking things in stride is how she approached her role in “Nashville.”
“The biggest lessons I have learned is to let go and do what they tell me to do,” she giggled. “I’ve never done a TV show before, and when they said do something and I did it, they seemed happy.”
Experiences like acting stretch Giddens’ artistic abilities.
“There are things I can bring back the experiences to my music,” she said. “It’s also a lot of fun, too.”
These days, Giddens is focused on songwriting.
“I’m not writing for any outfit in particular,” she said. “I’m just writing songs that need to be or feel like they need to be written.”
Giddens enjoys songwriting and performing, especially when she’s working with others.
She has performed with world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma in his Silk Road Ensemble, and many of the songs on “Freedom Highway” emerged from collaborations.
“While I don’t need that to get a kernel of a song, because I’ve written many songs on my own, I have found I do love the energy with being inspired by someone and work with them,” Giddens said. “I really like that. I consider my best working environment is to work in tandem with someone else.”
Since receiving the MacArthur Fellow, Giddens’ songwriting has shifted to composing.
“While I’m always going to be a performer, this is really going to help me get these ideas out, and I’ve gotten a couple of commissions to write large-scale works,” she said. “I’m making these connections with this type of music that have historical ramifications in the way we look at things.”
Park City Institute will present Grammy Award-winning singer Rhiannon Giddens, co-founder of The Carolina Chocolate Drops, at 8 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 31, at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, 1750 Kearns Blvd. Tickets range from $49 to $189. They can be purchased by visiting http://www.ecclescenter.org.
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