100 Greatest Women, #96: Rhiannon Giddens


Rhiannon Giddens

2008 Ranking: New Entry

William Faulkner once wrote that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In recent years, no other artist has emerged who more fully embodies both the past and present of American Roots music as well as Rhiannon Giddens.

A native of North Carolina, Giddens is a daughter of the South who also has Celtic roots.  As she told CBS News in 2016, “My dad’s white, my mom’s black, and I’ve struggled with being mixed race. I kind of have found my identity through the music, through the roots music of North Carolina, and kind of realized that that’s my identity as a North Carolinian.”  Although Giddens would gain international recognition for her talent with the banjo, she left North Carolina to attend Oberlin College in Ohio, where her focus was opera.

After finishing school, she began performing in roots music festivals, a circuit that introduced her to Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson.  They first met at the Black Banjo Gathering in 2005. Together, the trio became the founding members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops.  The group quickly became popular for their fusion of bluegrass, folk, blues, and country, embracing sounds from yesterday and making them relevant today.  After a handful of albums on the Music Maker Label, the band signed with Nonesuch.  Their first release for that label, Genuine Negro Jig, garnered universal critical acclaim and earned them a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album.

The lineup for Caroline Chocolate Drops has changed in the years since, with Giddens as the remaining founding member.  A chance meeting with T Bone Burnett led to an offer for Giddens to record a solo album. The resulting project, Tomorrow is My Turn. earned her the International Folk Music Award for Album of the Year in 2016, which she won again for her landmark 2017 release, Freedom Highway. She has also completed side projects with Gaelwynd, the Elftones, and most recently, the Giddens Sisters and the New Basement Tapes. In 2016, she became both the first woman and the first person of color to win the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass.

The common thread between all of her work has been a deep understanding and appreciation for the past that is firmly grounded in the present. It’s an approach that allows her to cover seminal early country songs like “I Wish I Was a Single Girl Again” as comfortably as the Blu Cantrell urban hit, “Hit ‘Em Up Style (Oops!)”  Her collective work has resurrected little known songs by Cousin Emmy and Dolly Parton, bringing a fresh perspective to them.  As she said about her work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops in 2009, “Tradition is a guide, not a jailer. We play in an older tradition but we are modern musicians.”

Giddens reached new artistic heights by applying that principle to the African American experience, past and present, on her most recent album, Freedom Highway, which connected slavery and the civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties to the ongoing struggle for equality today, best exemplified by her integration of roots music and rap on “Better Get it Right the First Time,” which is a riveting anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Since releasing that album, Giddens has been named the guest curator of the 2018 Cambridge Folk Festival.  She is currently working on the music for “Lucy Negro, Redux,” a new dance show being prepped by the Nashville Ballet that is slated to debut in February 2019.

Essential Albums

  • Genuine Negro Jig (Carolina Chocolate Drops, 2010)
  • Tomorrow is My Turn (2015)
  • Freedom Highway (2017)

Industry Awards

  • Grammy Awards
    • Best Traditional Folk Album
      • Genuine Negro Jig (Carolina Chocolate Drops), 2011
  • International Folk Music Awards
    • Album of the Year
      • Tomorrow is My Turn, 2016
      • Freedom Highway, 2018

Next: #95. Sara Watkins

Previous: #97. The Forester Sisters


  1. So happy to see Rhiannon make the list. Her work so far has been nothing short of stellar and I keep hoping more people catch onto just how great she is!

  2. Given her already impressive resume, I suspect that if you revisit this topic ten years from now, she will be much higher on your list

  3. The Carolina Chocolate Drops show that we attended several years ago was definitely one of the very best concerts that we’ve seen and her solo albums are so good! I’ve loved following her career!

  4. Rhiannon has accomplish a lot in a short amount of time. Sky’s the limit for her potential.

  5. No mention of Rhiannon being named a MacArthur Fellow? The so-called “genius award” isn’t a music industry accolade but it’s quite prestigious in the world of arts, science, and humanities.

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