Rhiannon Giddens released a solo collection of songs in 2015, Tomorrow Is My Turn, but the design was never to part from the Carolina Chocolate Drops. As one of the band’s three original members, she celebrated a Grammy Award in 2010 for Best Traditional Folk Album (Genuine Negro Jig), and while the marquee this year has only displayed her name, she has been backed by the same band. And they’ve continued playing many of those tunes.
“I am so uninterested in having it be all about me,” Giddens said. “I’m not ever up there to be me. I’m up there to channel these songs. I do respect the show.”
So she turns over the microphone to bandmates, namely Hubby Jenkins.
“It’s nice to share a different perspective,” she continues. “It’s nice to have Hubby Jenkins take the stage and offer his perspective for a little bit. It makes for a strong show and that’s ultimately what I do. And if not, I don’t want to do it. My final obligation is not to my band members and it’s not to myself, it’s to the audience. We’ve put together such a strong show and every song is different and it has an arc and people feel like they’ve been on a journey when they come to one of our shows.”
Tomorrow Is My Turn is almost entirely comprised of carefully selected cover versions that Giddens chose after being approached by legendary producer T Bone Burnett about a solo project. Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Odetta are among the songwriters included, but the records also includes versions of African American spirituals, like “Round About the Mountain.” Five songs were left over, and they’ll be released as an EP this November.
“It’s about the songs,” Giddens says of how she chooses a song to record. “How can it be interpreted? Because that’s what I do. I don’t cover, because covering is taking the same arrangement and playing the same arrangement. Is a song the arrangement or is it a good song? I think there are a lot of songs where the arrangement makes the song. And if you don’t do the arrangement, the song suffers.
“You look for a song you can do in your way and the song stands up. It’s got to be a good song, no matter where it comes from; whether it’s 400 years old or 40 years old or whether it was written last year. It’s got to be a good song to want to do it and it’s got to be a song that’s interesting to me.”
As the Greensboro, N.C., native grows older, she feels like she has more to say. In July, in the wake of the shooting at the Charleston AME church, Giddens articulated her pain in song. The video for “Cry No More” was filmed in a church; her refrains set to a simple drum beat, echoed by a choir’s “I/We can’t cry no more.” Placing modern-day issues into historical context has always been her aim; using her own words and words already written to convey her message.
“I felt strongly enough about it to write a song and make a video and post it,” Giddens says of her response to Charleston. “I had to say something. I’m a historically based musician. This is what I do. You’ve got to put that in the context it belongs and say what you think about it. So I said what I think about it through my song.”
It’s a direction that she’ll venture deeper into as she explores the potential of the solo project. Her songwriting has been influenced by artists like Dolly Parton as she has grown older, but her inspirations are as diverse as Stephen Sondheim and Sting.
“I’m never going to be putting out a full original album just for the sake of doing it,” she says. “It’s got to be — what’s the theme of the record and what am I trying to say and do my originals fit with what I want to say? But I do anticipate more [original material] on the next record. I’ve been writing a lot and I’ve been writing a lot with other people. It’s been a great experience.”
She’s performed with The New Basement Tapes, a project from Marcus Mumford, Taylor Goldsmith, Elvis Costello and Jim James that recorded songs handwritten by Bob Dylan but which he never captured on tape. She recently joined Iron & Wine to make a track for NBC’s Parenthood. And she already has the EP follow-up to this year’s solo record. But as she tours with several members of the band she founded, Carolina Chocolate Drops remains the heart of her career.
“It didn’t make sense to tour the solo record as Carolina Chocolate Drops because most of them weren’t on it and the music is totally different,” she said. “It just made lots of sense to say, ‘Hey, do you guys want to come tour with me?’ So everybody keeps working and we stay together. I don’t know what’s going to happen next year. It’s one of those things. Life kind of takes over. Life is what happens when you’re making plans.”
Rhiannon Giddens comes to Iron City on Wednesday, Sept. 30. Leila McCalla opens. Doors open at 7 p.m., while the show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $30 in advance and $35 at the door. For more information, visit ironcitybham.com.