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Rhiannon Giddens at the Ryman: Reclaiming American Music One Song at a Time

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

Rhiannon Giddens and her band served up a lot of powerful music at the Ryman Auditorium this weekend. But it was a salty, old-school-country foot-stomper that got me thinking.

Giddens’ new album, “You’re the One,” is her first solo project in six years and a departure for the former founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. She’s known for her banjo virtuosity on “old timey” tunes, part of a noble effort to reclaim at least some of the roots of American country music for the African slaves who helped shape it. Her new stuff wanders skillfully among other genres, from soul to torch songs to spirituals to country.

Early in the show Giddens noted that, while she has played at the Ryman as a warm-up act or part of a larger revue, this was her first appearance as a headliner. Given that the original home of the Grand Ole Opry remains sacred ground for country musicians and fans, she was clearly proud of the moment, and in the same interlude recalled one of the legends of the Opry stage, Dolly Parton.

As viewers of Ken Burns’ excellent “Country Music” documentary can tell you, Parton launched her career in the early 60s as a “girl singer,” a role typically requiring little more than a pretty voice, a toothy smile, and a muscular hairdo. With powerful songs like “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You,” however, Parton established her chops as a songwriter, bringing a female perspective to the male-dominated genre.

Giddens, who was prominently featured in Burns’ documentary, said she was thinking about the "young, salty" Parton when she wrote “If You Don’t Know How Sweet It Is,” a feminist firecracker.

“If you don't know how sweet it is Get on out of my kitchen. If you can't tell how good it is Well, you won't know what you're missing.

You're good, but I'll find better And they'll be without your bitching If you don't know how sweet it is Get the hell out of my kitchen”

It was easy to imagine a Dolly bringing the Ryman crowd to its feet with a song like this in, say, 1965. She’d have been backed by Porter Wagoner and his Wagoneers in their elaborately embroidered, Nudie Taylor-designed stage suits.

Giddens, who is of mixed African and European descent, performed in an elegant but understated floor-length black dress with her hair tied back. Her Congalese guitarist, Niwel Tsumbi, looked sharp in a cowboy hat, red embroidered shirt and fancy boots. But it was hardly a Nudie suit. And I don’t think any of Porter Wagoner’s lily white Wagoneers ever wore their dreadlocks tied up in a bun like Giddens' drummer Attis Clopton did.

The moment might have been more powerful for me because we went to see Giddens just a few weeks ago at a Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum artist showcase event. On her own for that appearance, she talked candidly about racism and the struggles African Americans still face.

She also talked about her own upbringing as a mixed-race child in the south, noting that “there are all different kinds of people in small towns,” a not-so-subtle shot at country pop superstar Jason Aldean. His hit song, “Try That in a Small Town” features images of violence at Black Lives Matter protests juxtaposed against the bucolic courthouse steps in Columbia, Tennessee, notorious as the spot where a black teenager was lynched nearly 100 years ago. The video has been roundly criticized, and was taken off the air by CMT (Country Music Television). But the song also reached number one on Billboard's Hot 100.

To me it felt like Giddens’ was offering an answer to the white fragility of Aldean and so many of his fans. Giddens certainly sings - and sang at the Ryman - more directly powerful songs about race and racism. But by channeling Dolly at the Mother Church of Country Music, she was making a statement: Country music is American music, and it belongs to all Americans. At least that's what I heard.

Among those more direct songs about race was “Another Wasted Life,” a reflection on Kalief Browder, a young New York man held without trial at Rikers Island for three years on a charge of petty theft. After much delay, his case was dropped without a trial. Browder, who'd spent more than 700 days in solitary confinement, killed himself two years after he was released.

Giddens’ telling of his story packed a soulful punch that was heightened by a guest appearance from Demeanor, whose backing vocal rap lifted the song like a Greek chorus.

Another powerful moment came with Giddens’ rendition of “Birmingham Sunday,” which she pointed out she was singing on the 60th anniversary of the Alabama church bombing the song chronicles. Written by Richard Farina (and also performed by Farina’s sister-in-law, Joan Baez), the song names each of the four young girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. Giddens' operatically trained voice gave the beautiful song the heft and texture it deserves. It was Mary's favorite moment of the show.

Giddens is something of a polymath, having most recently shared a Pulitzer Prize for “Omar,” an opera she wrote with Michael Abels. With this new album and this new tour, she’s moving into the world of more mainstream music, without losing her mission or abandoning her roots.

Here's an excellent review of Giddens' new album.

It’s a long tour. Do yourself a favor and get out to see her.


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