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Singer Rhiannon Giddens taps America’s deep musical roots

Rhiannon Giddens has studied opera and fronted a Grammy-winning old-time string band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Now her debut solo album, produced by T. Bone Burnett, showcases her range and celebrates the musical influence of American women like Odetta, Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton and Nina Simone. She sits down with Jeffrey Brown to discuss her passion for performing.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Finally tonight: a singer celebrating American roots.

    At the White House last night, Rhiannon Giddens performed in a concert honoring the history of gospel music. And that's just one American tradition Giddens is helping to repopularize as she tours the country for her first solo album.

    Jeffrey Brown has our profile.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It's a powerful song, "Waterboy," made famous by the folk singer Odetta, now becoming a signature for a powerful new voice of today belonging to Rhiannon Giddens.

    At 38, Giddens has just released her first solo album, titled "Tomorrow Is My Turn."

    And though now stepping out into the spotlight, here recently at the Big Ears Music Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, she told me she hasn't lost sight of what's important to her.

    RHIANNON GIDDENS, "Tomorrow is My Turn": I'm just so passionate about the history. I'm always reading books about history, and, you know, I feel like my mission is to perform. You know, of course, that's what I was here to do, but, like, that extra thing is to bring attention to music that doesn't necessarily get the light of day a lot.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The album "Tomorrow Is My Turn" is named for a song made famous by Nina Simone. And like Simone, Giddens grew up in North Carolina and trained as a classical musician.

    Her debut celebrates women who influenced her, some famous like Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline, others, like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Libba Cotten, much less so.

  • RHIANNON GIDDENS:

    I have been really thinking about the women in Americana music and the women in American history, and just kind of thinking about all these really strong women who broke down doors, and had to kind of overcome lots of hardship to, like, even have a music career, and just how much I benefit from that.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The album also showcases Giddens' range through gospel, blues, country, and jazz.

  • RHIANNON GIDDENS:

    To me, all of those songs, blues, jazz, country, all of them actually do belong side by side, because they're all coming out of this common well of sort of the proto-American music, like this roots stuff, you know, and so it was just kind of irresistible to be able to do them all together.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Giddens studied opera at the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio. It was there, she came back to earlier loves, folk music, first through contra dance, similar to line dancing, and then string band music from Appalachia.

    That led to an exploration of the often-overlooked role of African-Americans in the genre. Her group, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, won a 2010 Grammy for best new folk album.

  • RHIANNON GIDDENS:

    String band music is a cross-cultural thing. It's not a white thing. It's not a black thing either. I'm a mixed-race person, you know, and I was raised with both culturally, and I was raised sort of with the Southern sort of the melange of cultures.

    And so, to me, getting that information out there is way, way important, because it's like, look, guys, like, this is why American music is so strong.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Then, one of those moments that can change a career, a concert in New York in 2013 put together by legendary music producer T. Bone Burnett to celebrate the film about the early folk music scene "Inside Llewyn Davis."

    Many stars performed, Joan Baez, Jack White, Patti Smith, and Elvis Costello among them. But, by all accounts, Giddens stole the show, including with a rousing song in Gaelic.

  • RHIANNON GIDDENS:

    It was like, don't screw it up, don't screw it up, don't screw it up, you know, and the rest of it just kind of came as a total surprise.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Soon after, T. Bone Burnett offered to produce Giddens' first solo album.

  • RHIANNON GIDDENS:

    I would be a fool to not use all the tools at my disposal, you know, because really the important thing to me is music and the mission.

    So, if me being a soloist is going to be the best way to get it out to more people, I will do it. If me, like, putting on makeup and a nice gown is going to help the mission and to get the whole project taken forward, I will do it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But you're being, in a sense, for the larger public, discovered at 38.

  • RHIANNON GIDDENS:

    Yes, and I'm so grateful for that. I was an idiot at 28. You know what I mean? Like, I like have to say, you know, that I'm a half-idiot now. So, you know, you just learn so much as you get older. I have got kids. Like, I just know what's important in this life. It's a good spot to be in at the moment.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    At the moment and into tomorrow.

    From Knoxville, Tennessee, I'm Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And there's more from Rhiannon Giddens online, where you can see her play the banjo and sing a new song. It's called "Julie" and was inspired by a conversation between a mistress and her slave during the Civil War.

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