Archived Arts & Entertainment

Innovation through tradition

art frRhiannon Giddens is an old soul, but one that embraces modernity.

Vocalist/fiddler of renowned Americana string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Giddens is a jack-of-all-trades in not only her instrumentation but also her exploration of the history and evolution of American music.


Bursting onto the scene in 2005, the Drops have extensively toured the world, picking up numerous awards and accolades, on top of being placed on seemingly every “best of” list in the process. Incorporating old-time music, ranging from bluegrass to folk, blues to early jazz, they soak in genres from every direction, only to mold together a sound as unique as the musicians themselves.

The ensemble, featuring Giddons, co-founder Dom Flemons (vocals/banjo/harmonica), Hubby Jenkins (guitar/mandolin), Adam Matta (beat box/tambourine) and Leyla McCalla (cello), will be hitting the stage on Friday, Feb. 22, at the Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts in Franklin.

Speaking from her home in Greensboro, Giddens is a warm conversationalist. She gave birth to a son in January, something that brings her craft and passion full circle. And as the Drops continue their crusade of innovation through tradition, Giddens looks forward to the challenge of breaking down long held musical barriers, in an effort to create something bigger than herself and those who came before her.

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Smoky Mountain News: How has motherhood affected your outlook as an entertainer?

Rhiannon Giddens: The thing I think it’s done most is that it makes me use my free time in more of a constructive way. I’ve definitely been more productive now than I was before I had kids. It’s funny, you think you’ll get less stuff done, but you actually get the same amount done, just in a lot less time. Also, you don’t sweat the small stuff, because you realize the bigger things in life, you know?

SMN: Your mentor (legendary 93-year-old fiddler Joe Thompson) passed away last year and you had a child last month. How does that affect you?

RG: It just reminds you that life keeps going. We knew the day would come when Joe would be gone. It’s sad, but he had such a full life and got so much recognition in his lifetime. The most overwhelming feeling was gratitude that we were able to study with him and carry on his music. We studied with him, at his feet, for months and years, and this is how we do it musically. We’re able to let somebody who never got to meet Joe get a flavor through us.

SMN: The foundation of that old-time music is African instruments and African-American storytellers. The irony is that today you never see, at least in the mainstream, any black musicians up onstage in the bluegrass and Americana genres. Why is that?

RG: There are a lot of different reasons. It’s a complicated story. It’s not just that the music wouldn’t have made it without the African influence, it maybe wouldn’t have made it without that dialogue.

It’s just that pattern of the consumption of popular American music, in that there were uneasy partnerships, and the people who benefited, mostly monetarily, were always white. Then, the blacks would move on, and it would happen again.

The African-American community has never had a big history of looking back. So, you continue to look forward, and once that music is dropped from your community, you don’t go back to it.

And there’s ignorance of what the history is, and what people think of that music now, with record companies, with the African-American community moving forward.

SMN: You have that old-time feel and really have molded your sound into something uniquely your own. There’s as much Americana influence as hip-hop.

RG: We’ve always said we’re modern people who are inspired by these old recordings but also by the music we heard growing up. We have no interest in being a museum piece. If you try to filter out those modern influences and try to be “authentic,” that’s when you become very stiff and not alive. That’s not what we want to do. We want to keep it alive for this generation.

SMN: Some of the genres you incorporate, with bluegrass and folk, are ironic in that those are genres which put up barriers and unspoken rules in not bringing together other styles.

RG: Yeah, totally. That tends to be what happens when outsiders come into the music and then say, “we need to fix it, keep it right here, we can’t let grow anymore because this is what we know.” It happened to old-time music when people would say you can’t play a jig or do this or that.

But a lot of those old timers played whatever they wanted. They played what they heard on the radio or from what traveling musicians would play. Tons of American old folks songs and ballads were actually composed songs that made it into the American repertoire. So, you can’t say these people weren’t influenced by outside music because they were.

They made it into their own, and that’s kind of what we do. We hear a song on the radio and think, “how can we do it in our way?”

SMN: If you look at the rhythms and dialogues of really good hip-hop lyricists, you see themes and styles that remain from the old-time music.

RG: Absolutely. The more you look up the old stuff, the more you get a feel that things stay the same. That’s liberating in itself, like, “look, nothing under the sun is unique.” The key is to find your connection to it, and then the connection to the audience. That’s something we pursue.

SMN: How do you feel about this fast rising trajectory of success and admiration?

RG: We definitely feel like we’ve paid our dues. There were years where we were digging and touring like crazy. We’re at a place that may take other bands 10, 15 or 20 years, but we’re very grateful hitting it at the right time, with the right thing, with the right team around us. The thing about us is that we don’t fight about things that would usually break a band up. I say, bring it on.

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