Greensboro’s Rhiannon Giddens taking the music world by storm

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GREENSBORO, N.C. -- She has one of the Piedmont’s most powerful and memorable voices, and she’s taken the music industry by storm. Rolling Stone magazine calls her “one of the most promising voices in American roots music.”

Rhiannon Giddens, her husband and two children split their time between Greensboro and his native Ireland. This summer and early fall, she’s on tour performing in places such as Australia, the United Kingdom and across the United States.

“For me, it’s always been,” she told FOX8 recently sitting in the loft of Natty Greene’s Brewhouse in downtown Greensboro. “You know, family lore has me singing when I was little itty-bitty making up songs. And I never stopped.”

She was born, grew up and was educated early on in Greensboro. But she kept singing, even earning a vocal performance degree from Oberlin College in Ohio with an emphasis in opera. “I did five operas. And I was Juliet (in Charles Gounod’s opera, “Romeo and Juliet”). So I got a really great experience there.”

During college, it was all classical music all the time. But then she came back home to Greensboro and met guitarist Dom Flemons and fiddler Justin Robinson at an African-American string band convention in western North Carolina. They would eventually form the old-time string band “The Carolina Chocolate Drops.”

The Chocolate Drops were heavily influenced by the late legendary fiddler Joe Thompson of Alamance County. He would become a mentor.

“The importance of seeing a living, breathing elder of black string band music I can’t really overstate it,” she said. “Because without Joe, for me, it would have been academic. I would have read books [and thought], oh yeah, black people used to play. And with him it was like we were connected to this line of tradition that went back generations.”

That influence would help the Drops crank out five albums, one of which won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album.

Earlier this year, Giddens (with the help of legendary producer T Bone Burnett ) released her first solo album, “Tomorrow is My Turn.” All of the album’s songs were either written by or interpreted by women. “Not just any women,” she told me. “But women from Americana from the roots music I’ve been so influenced by -- and I count country as roots music.”

The work of artists such as Nina Simone and Dolly Parton are included. So is “Waterboy,” a song arranged and performed often by the late singer and civil rights activist Odetta Holmes. Giddens’ performance of that song on “Late Night with David Letterman” floored the audience and Letterman himself earlier this year.

Today, Giddens is writing another album but also focusing on other things. “I’m like 38. I’ve got two kids. I’m like, ‘What else can I say with my music?’ And now it’s like, ‘What’s happening now?’”

The recent murders in Charleston, S.C., moved Giddens to compose the song, “Cry No More.” The video was even shot in a church in Greensboro in June. Her Greensboro friends and others make up the choir.

This fall, Giddens returns to Greensboro to perform in the National Folk Festival.

“I think downtown festivals are really important because they just bring a lot of energy and, you know, it’s exposed people to music and art they wouldn’t normally see,” she said.

For more information on the National Folk Festival in Greensboro, click here.