Rhiannon Giddens: The Indivisible Sound

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Photo by John Peets

Tucked away in a pre-Civil War building in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, is a small, unassuming recording studio. It’s the kind of place that brings to mind the saying “if these walls could talk,” although for Rhiannon Giddens, the space evoked something more akin to “if these walls could sing … ”

For eight days, Giddens and producer Dirk Powell holed up in the storied building, working tirelessly on what would become Freedom Highway, a 12-song collection that is no doubt one of the most powerful musical and political statements we’ll hear this year.

As Giddens describes it, the album, the follow-up to her debut solo album Tomorrow Is My Turn, was a “labor of love,” one that saw the singer, multi-instrumentalist and Carolina Chocolate Drops founding member trying her hand at something (somewhat) new: songwriting.

Giddens wrote or co-wrote nine of the album’s tracks herself, including three covers to round out the collection. Where Tomorrow Is My Turn saw the North Carolina native offering her own stirring interpretations of songs by other artists, including Dolly Parton and Nina Simone, Freedom Highway is pure Giddens, a musical statement of purpose that shows an already accomplished artist stepping up her game.

Giddens first gained attention as a principal member of the Grammy-winning string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops, whose debut Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind came out in 2006. Their most recent release, Leaving Eden, came out in 2012, and the band has taken something of a hiatus since. In 2015, Giddens released Tomorrow Is My Turn, which earned her a Best Folk Album nomination at the 2016 Grammys. A 2016 EP, Factory Girl, notched her two more Grammy nominations (at press time, winners for the 2017 Grammy Awards had not been announced).

The North Carolina native is also an actress, playing Hannah Lee “Hallie” Jordan on CMT’s revamp of the ABC show Nashville (“I’ve learned a lot,” she says of her time working on Nashville. “It’s something I’m enjoying even more than I thought I would. I have more episodes to tape this winter and we’ll just see how people like it. Without spoiling anything, I really like the direction they’re going and they’ve been really good to me.”).

She’s busy, for sure, working collaborations with artists like Yo-Yo Ma and T Bone Burnett into an already packed schedule. Speaking to her now, though, it’s clear that this solo album is as close to her heart as anything she’s ever done, and has taken on even greater significance in recent months.

When Giddens began planning Freedom Highway, she couldn’t have predicted the world she would eventually release it into. When inklings of the record’s first tunes came to her, years ago, Barack Obama was still in office. When the collection began to take a discernible shape, the 2016 election — while no doubt as contentious as any in memory — looked to be tilting a different way, for many.

The world now, a couple of weeks after the album’s mid-February release, is a vastly different one, one Giddens would end up acknowledging in tandem with announcing the name of her new project:

“I am a daughter of the South; of the white working class, of the black working class; of the Democrat, and the Republican; of the gay, and the straight; and I can tell you one thing — we are far more alike than we are different. We cannot let hate divide us; we cannot let ignorance diminish us; we cannot let those whose greed fills their every waking hour take our country from us. They can’t take U.S. from US — unless we let them. I recorded this with Bhi Bhiman, all-American singer-songwriter from St. Louis, whose parents are from Sri Lanka. America’s strength are her people, whether they came 4,000, 400, or 40 years ago, and we can’t leave anyone behind. Let’s walk down Freedom Highway together.”

Giddens made that statement on November 9, 2016, one day after Donald Trump clinched the presidential election. In that moment there was no doubt that the release of Freedom Highway would become its own kind of political act: It’s an album that is raw, honest, and so of-this-moment that, at times, it feels like a gift from another world.

“The seed of this album started a few years ago,” Giddens explains. “I was reading a lot about the Civil War and slave narratives and I started writing these slave narrative songs. I listened to spirituals and started getting into minstrel music and I thought, ‘Where are the ballads? Where are the narrative songs?’ African tradition isn’t as big on narrative as it is other types of songs, but there are plenty of story-songs in the West African tradition … But then of course you realize that nobody could actually write about what was happening during slavery because they would be killed.”

Freedom Highway is full of songs that see Giddens inhabiting the headspace of others, including standout track “Julie,” which was one of the first songs that she wrote for the collection, that tune coming to her five years ago and taking up residence in her heart until an appropriate project manifested itself.

“I wrote a number of these, a couple of which are on the record, and then I just kind of sat on them,” she explains. “It was really my only foray into songwriting at the time and they were just kind of special things to me and they were things that had moved through me and I felt really strongly about them. They didn’t feel right to put on Tomorrow Is My Turn. They were just sitting in this little pocket and around fall of last year, I started having these conversations about the next record. I talked to producers and the idea was to take these songs and to create more around them, the idea of the African-American experience. That was the seed and it grew around there within the last year.”

Giddens recruited Louisiana musician and producer Powell for the album, and the two plotted, recorded and produced Freedom Highway in that historic Breaux Bridge building. Powell ended up an invaluable resource for Giddens, who credits him (not to mention his family — “We were going up to his mom’s house for coffee and to use the bathroom,” she laughs.) with helping her fully realize the vision she had for what would become a powerful and, inevitably, timely record.

“I talked to these big name or very ‘in,’ ‘hot’ producers of the moment and didn’t really connect with any of them,” Giddens explains. “I’d been having these conversations with Dirk Powell, who I obviously ended up producing the record with, and he’s just a wonderful musician. He’s based out of Louisiana and he’s well aware of the racial issues, the real ones. We talked a lot about that. We became sort of collaborators last year and we’d been talking about the stuff and he was like, ‘I’ve got a great little studio down in Louisiana,’ and the opportunity to further this conversation through the recording is awesome.”

As Giddens and Powell worked in the old building, the untold stories floating around them grew louder, and inevitably influenced the shape of the album, serving, in some ways, as additional instruments in a band that already featured some of both the bayou and the country’s best players.

“It’s a pre-Civil War structure that Dirk bought from a Creole family some time ago,” Giddens says. “He made a studio out of it, basically. There was one room and he added onto it. The wood in there is so gorgeous and it’s seen so much. The vibe of that room, the warmth of the space … When he first emailed me about the space it was so attractive to me, the idea of doing it in a historical space, in a region where there is so much history of racial and cultural struggle, it seemed like a really perfect place to go.”

While Giddens did the lion’s share of the writing on Freedom Highway (along with co-writers like Bhi Bhiman and the Milk Carton Kids’ Joey Ryan), there are also a handful of carefully chosen covers on the album, the most notable of which is the powerful title track, a 1965 song by the Staple Singers that tells the story of the Freedom Marches of the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-twentieth century.

“‘Freedom Highway’ and ‘Birmingham Sunday’ of course are very topical songs, but the only original one I would guess would be ‘Better Get It Right The First Time,’ which is a pretty topical piece,” Giddens says of the effects of current events on Freedom Highway. “As a historical writer, I approached that by thinking that it’s the other side of the coin from ‘Mrs. Collins’ [from Missisippi John Hurt’s song ‘Louis Collins’], going from all of these stories and the incarceration, the role that it has played in this country from slavery times. The idea of the through line from slavery to mass incarceration, it’s in that way of not overthinking it or thinking too hard about it but instinctually letting the art guide you. That song was probably the most ‘now,’ you know?”

She wrote that song after spending time at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Ossining, New York, through a program helmed by Carnegie Hall that pairs artists with prisoners. The track features her nephew, Justin Harrington, rapping.

“Just facing the reality of all of those black faces, and just knowing the history and knowing some of those guys are in there for reasons where other guys wouldn’t be in there … Some have been in there because they’ve done horrible things, but it’s very complex,” she says. “Thinking of my own nephew, who’s 18, about to turn 19 … He’s at Cincinnati Conservatory of Music for drama but with his hoodie on … You know what I mean? That’s why I involved him. So that’s the most topical of all of them, even though it’s connected to all of the history that came before, the acknowledgement of that through line.”

Like a cultural San Andreas Fault, that through line is a long, bloody one, with gnarled roots that stretch back to America’s beginnings, capable still of producing devastating aftershocks, like the deaths of many unarmed black men at the hands of police officers in recent years. While the seed that would become Freedom Highway had been germinating in Giddens’ mind for years, both those events and the blatant racism of the Trump administration changed the shape into which it ultimately grew.

“The biggest effect that the political climate had, the election, was that before the election we were going to call it At The Purchaser’s Option, after the song which is based on a slave narrative,” she explains. “When the election happened, we were about to finalize the track listing and everything and David Bither, who’s the [co-president] of Nonesuch, had this idea, but I was already starting to think about it. Was At The Purchaser’s Option really an appropriate title for this world that we were in? New and old? The world hasn’t changed, honestly, it’s just that some people are now aware that there are all of these people in this country.”

The support of her label was big for Giddens, but Freedom Highway was an album that she needed to put out regardless, a project that she felt compelled to complete ever since those first few songs started to take hold several years prior.

“I told Nonesuch, I was like, ‘Hey guys, I don’t know if this is the record you wanna put out but this is what I got in me,’” she says. “‘This is what we did.’ It was a super strong artistic moment for me, probably the strongest one I’ve had in a long time. I’ve never written a record before and when we were done I was like, ‘I don’t know what this is. I don’t know what people are going to think about it. But this is what needed to be made.’” 

While not necessarily her original goal, Freedom Highway may well be the first great piece of political music of the Trump era, due in equal parts to Giddens’ acknowledgement of the country’s complicated histories and to her compassionate eye toward its future. It’s a lot of weight for Giddens to carry on her shoulders, but it’s weight she knew she needed to bear when she gave the record its powerful title, and when she made the conscious decision to give voice to those who were never able to tell their stories themselves.

She’s here to do her part to ensure that America becomes a place where such stories never go untold again.

Freedom Highway is much more of a call to arms, like we need to stand together, we need to fight for what we believe in,” she explains. “So it was like, ‘When the hell am I going to say that, if not now?’ I’m not into politics. I wasn’t a Hillary Clinton fan, either, but I am into human decency and I am into acknowledging history and I am into fixing broken systems. So that’s how I like to approach things. I’m not a Democrat or a Republican; I just want my fellow humans to have a good life. I’m afraid of moving backwards.”

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