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From Carolina Chocolate drops to ‘Nashville,’ Rhiannon Giddens makes time to share music

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Americana musician and songwriter Rhiannon Giddens has a simple hope for her concert at 8:15 p.m. Friday in the Amphitheater — that folks enjoy the show. But if audience members listen up, they’ll hear Giddens educate while she entertains.

“I’ve always kind of been interested in that,” said Giddens, who rose to prominence as part of the Grammy Award-winning group Carolina Chocolate Drops and is now enjoying time as an actor and solo artist. “I always like to explain where things come from, so it’s just developed naturally into what it is now.”

Giddens’ songs often bring history to life. This past February, Giddens released her sophomore solo studio album, Freedom Highway. The title track is a 1965 civil rights protest song written by Roebuck Staples. Another track on the album, “At the Purchaser’s Option,” references a historical text about the sale of a slave woman and her baby.

Rolling Stone critic Will Hermes praised “Freedom Highway” and included Giddens’ songs in a roundup of new folk music with a mission statement.

“Her songs are wise and deeply felt, her singing powerful and refined, her embellished string band arrangements elegant,” Hermes wrote. “Her opera-schooled approach may seem mannered at times. But in a culture that tends to measure black American music solely in terms of the raw and the eccentric, even her style challenges the assumptions of history.”

Originally from North Carolina, Giddens graduated from Oberlin Conservatory, where she’d studied classical voice, in 2000. But she was drawn to the banjo and fiddle, and began performing and recording with Gaelwynd, a Celtic band. She went on to co-found the Carolina Chocolate Drops in 2005, and the bluesy, old-time music group won a 2011 Grammy for best traditional folk album for their debut, Genuine Negro Jig.

Now performing solo, Giddens said she hopes her music moves people to think about past and present.

“I’d love it if people were inspired to think more about American history, or the history of American music,” Giddens said.

Giddens found recognition as a solo performer in 2013 at the T Bone Burnett–produced Another Day, Another Time concert at New York City’s Town Hall. Her first solo album, Tomorrow is My Turn, followed in 2015 and became Album of the Year at the International Folk Music Awards.

Her success has continued, and in several arenas. In January, she debuted as Hallie Jordan on season five of CMT’s music-infused drama “Nashville.” She was also recently announced as the keynote speaker for the International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass Business Conference in September.

When not on tour, Giddens, who is married to the Irish musician Michael Laffan, is spending time with their two children in the family’s homes in North Carolina and County Limerick, Ireland.

There isn’t too much time for relaxing this summer.

This past week, she opened two concerts for country music couple Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. Come August, Giddens will have played both the Newport Folk and Newport Jazz festivals in the same year.

Although the set list for Giddens’ Chautauqua show will be decided shortly before showtime, she said favorites to play right now come from Freedom Highway and Tomorrow Is My Turn. There are also songs that her listeners haven’t heard on any recording — like her cover of Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.”

“I don’t know if we’ll do it that,” Giddens said. “Things like that will change a little bit, but it’s been a lot of fun.”

Whatever she plays, Giddens will infuse her show with her signature combination of music and history. For some songs, however, it will be up to the audience to find out more. Giddens said she is guided to share based on “what feels right at the time.”

“If I think, ‘It’d be nice if they knew this, but it’s not going to change how they hear the song,’ then I won’t say anything,” Giddens said.

Tags : Amphitheatercarolina chocolate dropsfreedom highwayGrammy Award-winningRhiannon Giddens
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The author Dara McBride

A recent graduate of Syracuse University’s Goldring Arts Journalism program, she comes to Chautauqua after covering Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina, for The Post and Courier. A Delaware native, she spent three years as a lifestyles editor on Maryland’s Eastern Shore writing about local authors, musicians and artists. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre magazine. She can be reached at dara.mcbride@gmail.com or @DaraMcBride.

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