Working with the legendary T-Bone Burnett on your first solo album is probably every roots musician’s dream, even if you’re already a Grammy winner.
Rhiannon Giddens of the Grammy-winning N.C. string band Carolina Chocolate Drops wasn’t thinking of a solo album when she blew away the crowd by singing Odetta’s “Water Boy” at the Burnett-curated “Another Day, Another Time” ’60s folk revival concert in New York City in 2013.
Burnett was so impressed by her performance that he asked if he could produce an album with her. She already had a short list of songs by female artists that didn’t fit the mold of the Chocolate Drops. Burnett told her to find more.
“The theme of women in Americana seemed to impose itself on the list,” says Giddens, calling from Nashville. “That’s what I wanted to do. That’s what I was inspired by and still am. I sent him this long list of songs and he said, ‘Let’s do all of them.’”
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Giddens ended up with more than enough songs for the album, “Tomorrow Is My Turn,” which was released in February. She brings her solo tour to McGlohon Theatre Wednesday.
“We had to cut some, which made me sad,” she says. “But we wanted to make an album with a sequence and a feel to it, not a collection of songs. It was necessary to tear out things that weren’t quite fitting for a tighter album, especially because the music is so disparate, but coming from the common well of Americana.”
“Tomorrow Is My Turn” may be an album of covers (aside from Giddens’ original closer), but her renditions are so fresh and emotive that it’s easy to forget the other versions. She delves into gospel, folk, R&B and Celtic music, covering songs made famous by Nina Simone, Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, Odetta, and Libba Cotton, dotting it all with her haunting, commanding voice.
She rewrote much of the traditional song “Black Is the Color.”
“I was looking at ballads and there were all these different versions,” she says. “A lot of times I’ll pick my favorite. For ‘Black Is the Color’ – I love the first verse, but I scrapped the rest and rewrote it as a love song. That’s what I loved about it, so I expanded that.”
“That’s a real folk attitude,” she says of altering lyrics. “These songs, they migrate. There’s been loads of generations that try to sing it faithfully, but it still gets changed.”
Giddens is a modern folk musician in the traditional sense. She’s written protest songs for the N.C. Music Love Army, collaborated on the Burnett-produced collection of partial Bob Dylan songs titled “Lost on the River: The Basement Tapes” with Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford and Jim James. She studied opera in college and plays violin and banjo.
Meeting fellow Chocolate Drop founders Justin Robinson and Dom Flemons (who have since departed the band) and mentor Joe Thompson (who died in 2012) at the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone in 2005 changed the course of Giddens’ life.
Like most kids, she wasn’t exposed to roots music from the get-go. The Greensboro native grew up exposed to pop, country (citing the crop of ’90s female songwriters as an early inspiration), bluegrass and classical, but didn’t experience roots music “until I was able to appreciate it,” she says.
But the older string band and folk music she tapped into with the Drops and now on “Tomorrow Is My Turn” really resonated with her.
“It connected me to my past,” she says. “The sense of history – I think about my grandparents and what they had to go through. I imagine what life was like. For me it’s living history, like a snapshot in time.”
Courtney’s blog: cltsoundbites.blogspot.com
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.
WHERE: McGlohon Theatre, 345 N. College St.
DETAILS: 704-372-1000; www.blumenthalarts.org.