Jay Meehan: Rhiannon Giddens — an elegant brilliance
You had to forgive Rhiannon Giddens for not being able to totally subdue the slight bit of sashay that was working its way into her entrance manner back during her “Carolina Chocolate Drops” days. It’s almost as if she knew she was heading to the pantheon of creative performance art and the bearing was just a natural part of the shtick.
As a musical essence, she appeared well aware of and comfortable with the wondrous profundities that swirled around in her head and had just chosen to take her time identifying the proper key within which to share them. From our end, we loved everything about her immediately and for the longest time she was all we could talk about.
In the beginning I had her pegged as part of the virtuoso arm of the continuum that came out of the echoes of the ‘60s, both civil rights movement and folk revival-wise. But looking back, it has become obvious that I had little if any clue as to the width and breadth of either her interests or ability to creatively channel the idioms involved.
Take the African American string band tradition for instance. My “Old Timey” listening chops were strictly derived from Appalachia via the British Isles in those days. The African roots that evolved over time on the Carolina Piedmont had escaped my gaze until the “Drops” turned my historical music sensibility on its head through resolute research and performance.
Although their music reeked of academics and the marriage of fiddle and banjo, their obvious joy within the primitive brought them a 2010 Grammy Award for their debut recording “Genuine Negro Jig” in the Best Traditional Folk Album category.
But it would be Rhiannon’s stunning, and startling, rendition of Odetta’s “Water Boy” during the T Bone Burnett-produced one-night tribute to the music from the Coen Brothers’ film “Inside Llewyn Davis” at Town Hall that caused heads to turn and jaws to drop recording-industry-wide.
Not too much longer after that Burnett had talked her into the studio to record her solo debut “Tomorrow is my Turn.” The chick showed just how all over the musical map she had traveled by channeling the spaces between Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline on her way to riffing a singular proto-jazz-and-blues style of her own making. What can I say? She’s a goddess!
Then came another T Bone project that included Ms. Giddens, one perhaps you’ve heard about. It seems that back during the latter part of the ‘60s when Bob Dylan was on the mend from his famous Triumph motorcycle accident and choosing to hang out near Woodstock with five guys who would later gain fame as “The Band,” his song-scribblings would encompass more than what would later show up on the various bootlegs known as “The Basement Tapes.”
Gathering the likes of Elvis Costello, Taylor Goldsmith, Jim James, Marcus Mumford, and our very own Rhiannon Giddens in Sinatra’s old digs on an upper floor of that iconic Capitol Records building just up Vine Street from Hollywood Boulevard, Burnett assigned them the task of making complete songs out of Dylan’s old napkin musings.
I’m not going to infer that she once again stole the show, but I can testify to an obvious drop in my coefficient-of-interest whenever they cut away from her in the documentary film they fashioned from their days in that studio. If you haven’t caught the film as yet, I would highly recommend “Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued.”
All this T Bone Burnett hoopla surrounding Rhiannon makes it somewhat difficult to not connect similar dots to her emergence as a headliner on the television show “Nashville” in that T Bone helmed the Music Director chair of the series in its infancy. Makes perfect sense to me why the world has come a’calling. She is one hot ticket with little sign of cooling off.
Then, although she pretty much guffaws at the term, there is her “Genius Grant” of $625,000 that accompanies her MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in five annual “no strings attached” installments. At the least it must provide a bit of validation for the multicultural creative path she finds herself riding.
And with her Park City Institute-produced New Year’s Eve show at the Eccles Center just around the corner, we’ll all soon enough have a chance to see for ourselves what all the fuss is about.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social and political scenes for more than 40 years.
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