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Rhiannon Giddens: A Folk Star’s Breakout Moment

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By Jon Bream

Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

(TNS)

She is named after a Welsh mythological spirit. She calls a guy named T Bone her “fairy godfather.” And she just led a singalong at the White House with Barack and Michelle.

Rhiannon Giddens has been on a roll since hip producer T Bone Burnett called out of the blue a couple of years ago.

He wanted Giddens, lead singer of the old-timey, Grammy-winning trio Carolina Chocolate Drops, to perform at a 2013 all-star folk concert for the Coen brothers’ film “Inside Llewyn Davis.” She stole the show, and he soon enlisted her to join Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Jim James of My Morning Jacket and Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes in the studio to compose and record music to some unpublished Bob Dylan lyrics.

That led to Giddens’ new Burnett-produced solo album, “Tomorrow Is My Turn.”

The solo career “came out of left field, really,” said Giddens. “I was focused on the next Chocolate Drops record. We had dates set up to record that. And this concert happened in New York. I guess I made a splash because immediately afterwards he said ‘Let’s do a solo record.’ Sometimes you just follow the music.”

Burnett asked her to sing a song by Odetta, a leading voice of the 1950s-60s folk revival, at the New York tribute show, which also featured Costello, Joan Baez, Jack White, Gillian Welch, the Punch Brothers, the Avett Brothers and Conor Oberst.

“I was there to represent Odetta and Harry Belafonte and that whole sort of black branch of the folk movement, and that meant a lot to me,” Giddens, 37, said recently. “Being in the same room as Joan Baez and Patti Smith and being counted amongst them also meant a lot to me.”

She admitted she’s never seen Joel and Ethan Coen’s movie, which was inspired by the 1960s folk explosion. “I get a chance to see about two movies a year,” said Giddens, the working mother of two children, ages 2 and 6.

The Dylan project, “Lost in the River: The New Basement Tapes,” was “really hard, really intense,” she reflected. Imagine writing and recording music for 45 songs with famous musicians you didn’t really know. Moreover, she had never recorded without her decade-old roots-folk band.

“It was intimidating being out of my element,” she said. “I’ve heard of Elvis Costello and I’ve heard of My Morning Jacket. I knew of Mumford & Sons and I was introduced to Dawes through this project. Quickly I saw they were all monster musicians, and I knew coming in I wasn’t a monster instrumentalist. I was coming as a traditionalist, a fiddle and banjo player. But the biggest obstacles you have as an artist are your own; they are in your head. If you can overcome them, you can do great things.”

Giddens is grateful to Burnett.

“He’s been my fairy godfather,” she said. “We have a pretty good batting average so far. He creates a great situation for you, but you have to take it. I never knew that’s what I needed.”

For her solo album, the history-obsessed Giddens wanted to shine a spotlight on her foremothers in music, including Nina Simone, Dolly Parton, Elizabeth Cotten and Patsy Cline.

“I’m here to contextualize things, to put things in a continuum and to say, ‘I’m able to do this because of X, Y and Z.’ And there’s just the fact that these songs are fantastic. The music has to lead.”

Giddens’ rangy soprano can handle everything from classical to gospel with authority, but her album does not reflect her background in opera. She earned a degree in classical music at Oberlin Conservatory in 2000. She gave up on opera to pursue old-time African-American music with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who will resume after she wraps up her solo tour.

“I love singing opera, but the world surrounding it is not me. I want to be barefoot. I want to be in control of my own career. I want to put on a show. In the opera world, you wait for people to call you until you get to a certain level. In the folk world, it’s a lot easier to have control from the beginning. You decide what’s your band’s name, what you are playing. I couldn’t stand the politics in opera.”

But she hasn’t given up on drama. Last week she donned a stylish dress and vintage hairdo for a gospel music program at the White House organized by Burnett. Her role was to channel gospel-rocker Sister Rosetta Tharpe, whose boisterous song “Up Above My Head” is featured on the new album.

“Anything that starts with Shirley Caesar and ends with Aretha Franklin is all right in my book,” Giddens said of the concert, planned for PBS broadcast in June. “It was pretty spectacular. It was a celebratory song, and it was nice to represent that style and that history. I did a call-and-response. I don’t imagine any other time in my life that I’ll have the president and the first lady responding to my call.”

Finally, after responding to so many of Burnett’s calls, it was Giddens’ turn to do the calling.

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Rhiannon Giddens: A Folk Star’s Breakout Moment