Singer and multi-instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens is best known as the frontwoman of African-American string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops, whose 2010 album Genuine Negro Jig earned them a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album. Raised in Piedmont, North Carolina, Giddens studied opera at the Oberlin Conservatory before relocating back home, where she became immersed in the rural musical traditions of that region. A chance meeting with future bandmates Justin Robinson and Dom Flemons at the 2005 Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, North Carolina resulted in the formation of their first folk project, Sankofa Strings. Originally an outlet to perform various early African-American musical styles like blues, country, hot string jazz, and Caribbean, the bandmembers ended up learning much of their early repertoire from legendary old-time fiddler Joe Thompson. Adopting the name the Carolina Chocolate Drops, they released four eclectic and well-respected albums before signing with Nonesuch Records to release their wildly successful 2010 breakthrough album.
Following the success of Genuine Negro Jig, the band continued to tour and record with an ever-evolving lineup that remained centered around Giddens' powerful vocals and fiddle/banjo playing. Drafted by producer T-Bone Burnett to perform solo at the 2013 Another Day, Another Time concert (celebrating the musical era of the film Inside Llewyn Davis) in New York, she gave a showstopping performance of the Odetta classic "Waterboy," which was widely considered the highlight of the evening. Just a few months later in early 2014, she again worked with Burnett on the collaborative New Basement Tapes recording project, which featured Elvis Costello, Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Marcus Mumford (Mumford & Sons), and Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes) writing new music to recently discovered Bob Dylan lyrics. Her own Burnett-produced solo debut, Tomorrow Is My Turn, was released a year later in February 2015. At the end of the year, she released an EP called Factory Girl, which was culled from the same sessions as Tomorrow Is My Turn; its title track received a Grammy nomination for Best American Roots Performance in 2017, while the EP itself was nominated for Best Folk Album. Giddens released her second solo album, Freedom Highway, which she co-produced with Dirk Powell, in February 2017. ~ Timothy Monger