Album of the Week

Album of the Week

Rhiannon Giddens bears a heavy torch.

Though she studied opera at the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory of Music, it’s difficult to imagine the Greensboro, North Carolina native making any music that doesn’t sound like it was dug out of the blood and sweat-soaked soil of the American heartland.

First gaining attention as a founding member of the Grammy Award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, the singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist has made her solo debut with Tomorrow is My Turn, produced by the indispensable T Bone Burnett.

Burnett first worked with Giddens’ when he curated last year’s concert celebrating the music of the Coen Brothers film, “Inside Llewyn Davis, which he also arranged the soundtrack for. Among a star-studded lineup that included Jack White, Elvis Costello, Conor Oberst and Marcus Mumford, Giddens’ performance earned the night’s only standing ovation.

Backstage, Burnett was immediately asked if he could record with her, which materialized in this album, as well last November’s Lost On The River: The New Basement Tapes where Giddens’ worked alongside Costello, Mumford, Jim James and Taylor Goldsmith.

“It was clear the first time I heard her at rehearsal that Rhiannon is next in a long line of singers that include Marian Anderson, Odetta, Mahalia Jackson, Rosetta Tharpe,” Burnett says. “We need that person in our culture.”

For Tomorrow is My Turn, Giddens chose to interpret a broad collection of songs rooted in traditions of gospel, jazz, blues, and country; the common thread being that each was written by or popularly performed by strong female artists of the 20th century, appropriately capped off by an original tune penned by Giddens.

In addition to the traditional “Black Is the Color,” tracks include Hank Cochran’s “She’s Got You,” made famous by Patsy Cline; Dolly Parton’s “Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind”; “O Love Is Teasin’,” popularized by the Kentucky-reared “mother of folk” Jean Ritchie; and Elizabeth Cotton’s “Shake Sugaree.”

“I had already started putting together a list of songs that didn’t really fit into the Chocolate Drops world,” Giddens explains. “At the top was ‘Tomorrow Is My Turn’ [immortalized by Nina Simone]. Seeing Nina do it on YouTube was revelatory. I knew she’d gone through a lot of hard times, as so many people did in that time period. Watching her sing this song, with the words ‘tomorrow is my turn,’ I began to think about the struggle of her and women like her.”

The significance of this song led Giddens to make it the title of the album as well. “Other songs started getting on my list and they were all by women or interpreted by women,” she says.

Tomorrow Is My Turn was recorded in Los Angeles and Nashville, where Burnett assembled a group of players spanning generations.

That cast included fiddle player Gabe Witcher and double bassist Paul Kowert of Punch Brothers; percussionist Jack Ashford (Funk Brothers); drummer Jay Bellerose; guitarist Colin Linden; legendary backup singer Tata Vega; veteran Nashville session bassist Dennis Crouch; and Giddens’ Drops touring band-mates, multi-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins and beat-boxer Adam Matta.

Enjoy a track-by-track commentary by Giddens below.

(Photo: Claire O’Rorke)

Last Kind Words

The landscape of American music is littered with the ghosts of the unknowable and mysterious blues musician, scratchy voices on a 78 conjuring up an era and an energy long gone. No one represents this better, perhaps, than Geeshie Wiley, who, along with equally unknown L.V. Thomas, recorded a handful of sides for Paramount Records in 1930–31. “Last Kind Word Blues” calls to me in a way that I can’t really explain, but when T Bone suggested it for the record, I knew instantly it was the way to begin.

 

Don’t Let it Trouble Your Mind

Dolly Parton has always been a hero of mine; not only did she not forget her roots and her people when she “hit it big,” she just happens to be an astute businesswoman and a damn fine songwriter. This one in particular is a great representative of her earlier work – the attitude is dripping from every word.

 

Waterboy

Odetta has been cited as a major influence by folks like Bob Dylan, Bernice Johnson Reagon, and Janis Joplin, among many others. She was a soulful force for good in both the folk world and the civil rights world, and it’s an honor to present her arrangement of this work song–inspired piece. We were both classically trained, and so it was great to be able to let my throat loose!

 

She’s Got You

Patsy Cline is of course the ultimate country singer, and one of the ultimate singers, period. But the way she took care of her family and friends, and the way she was able to take control of her career and inspire respect in an industry run by men, are just as impressive to me. Hubby Jenkins and I recast this in a sort of old-timey R&B vibe.

 

Up Above My Head

Sister Rosetta Tharpe holds an important role in the evolution of American music; a great innovator, she not only unapologetically bridged the seemingly enormous chasm between secular and church music, she also helped pioneer the unique sound of rock-n-roll guitar. Her infectious spirit, impeccable musicality, and sheer joy in her faith are obvious in every recording and are a source of great inspiration.

 

Tomorrow is My Turn

This is a poignant English translation of the Charles Aznavour song “L’amour c’est comme un jour.” I saw a video from 1968 of Nina Simone performing in London and it became the linchpin of this entire project. I was enthralled with this performance, showed it to friends, and it was at the top of the list when I started thinking about songs to do. This imagery was never too far from me for the recording of this album.

 

Black is the Color

This traditional ballad has been covered by many, including Joan Baez and Nina Simone, but I have always loved best Sheila Kay Adams’ version. She is a ballad singer from western North Carolina and is a consummate interpreter of songs. I always thought her way was different and more soulful – I took that as a jumping off point, and pushed it further, and Jon Baptiste gives it wings with his righteous melodica playing. I also never really understood what was going on in the original ballad, but loved the passion it hinted at. So I rewrote all but the last verse (using an old phrase here and there) and it turned into a song about my husband; he’s a ginger but other than that it’s pretty accurate.

 

Round about the Mountain

This is one of many African-American spirituals that have been set for classical voice and piano – this one was arranged by the celebrated black tenor Roland Hayes. I was captivated by Florence Quivar’s rendition of it and brought it to the session – the challenge was to translate this spiritual through a classical lens back to the vernacular side. Gabe Witcher took the original Hayes arrangement and chordal structure and broke it down between guitar, banjo, and double bass, and I strove to find a timbre that fit in.

 

Shake Sugaree

Libba Cotten was a well-regarded guitar player who was born in North Carolina and discovered when she was keeping house for the Seeger family. She played a unique left-handed style of guitar but didn’t have all her voice left in her later years – on her recording of “Shake Sugaree,” her granddaughter Brenda Evans sings the lyrics, about making the most out of what you got.

 

O Love is Teasin’

I first heard Peggy Seeger sing this and immediately fell in love with it – as I found earlier recordings I got caught by Jean Ritchie’s version, with her idiosyncratic and hypnotic dulcimer playing. This is the ancient warning from woman to woman about the perfidies of man.

 

Angel City

This is one of the only fully composed songs on this record, and the only personal viewpoint, but it feels like a summation of many things at this point in my artistic career. I wrote this after finishing the recording of The New Basement Tapes project – an intense, difficult, and incredibly rewarding experience. I had come into the recording with a load of baggage that I ended up working through as I wrote this song. As I was considering it for this record, it struck me that the lyrics also represented how I felt about all the amazing artists who had inspired this project.

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