From Banjos To Ballet: The Nerdy Genius Of Rhiannon Giddens

Rhiannon Giddens is a self-described nerd. She was a high school math nerd at Durham’s North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, a music and history nerd at Oberlin College and Conservatory in Ohio, and she says, even still, she’s the nerd at the party who might just corner you to talk about “banjos and slavery.”

“It’s kind of my tag line,” Giddens says, laughing on a Zoom call from her adopted home in Ireland – “somewhere that was never a colonizer.”

She visibly winces at terms like “genius” used to describe her – though as a 2017 recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, also colloquially known as the “Genius Grant,” it’s not unjustified. But it wasn’t always a given that it would be her path.

“I was a nerd and I was very into math and science in terms of reading about it, but less so in doing higher equations. I didn’t have the best grasp of the type of math that you needed to go into higher math,” she explains. By her junior year of high school, she made the pivot to music – she’d always sang in youth choirs and with her family – which would inform her decision to study at Oberlin.

The extremely accomplished instrumentalist, singer, producer, composer, author, podcaster, actress, musicologist and historian received the 2023 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her work on “Omar,” an opera with libretto and music based on the autobiography of Omar ibn Said, an enslaved Muslim man who lived in South Carolina in the 19th century, which she wrote in collaboration with Michael Abels during the COVID pandemic.

“I still didn’t know who I was yet, but when I got into Oberlin, I didn’t have to take any classes other than music and language for the foreseeable future,” Giddens, 46, says. “And I was so excited and just went into my theory classes. All theory was hard, but my history classes and my singing and opera – I was so excited and happy to be there. I typed up all my notes – I had books of notes – and I made really good grades. I was so enthusiastic. It was hard but it felt like such a dream. All I had to do was study music, you know? It was beautiful. A conservatory life was the one I didn’t know I needed until I was there.”

Rhiannon by Ebru Yildiz

As a polymath and a person of mixed race (her mother is Black and her father white) and growing up in the musically fertile Piedmont region of North Carolina, Giddens’ music influences were vast, ranging from classical, jazz and blues to country, gospel and rock ’n’ roll. From her uncle’s bluegrass band to MTV videos to watching the virtuosic Roy Clark on “Hee Haw” (which would eventually lead to her researching the buried history of traditional Black string bands). Giddens is likely the only person who ever attended the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, started an a capella group there and won Grammys.

In 2011, Carolina Chocolate Drops won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album for Genuine Negro Jig. After the influential group split up, Giddens would win Best Folk Album in 2022 for They’re Calling Me Home. All told, she has 10 Grammy nominations to her credit, including two at the 2024 ceremony.

“The first win was for the first nomination,” Giddens points out. “It’s kind of funny when you win first time out the gate. With the Chocolate Drops, we won the very last Traditional Folk Album Grammy. The year after, they discontinued that. We broke the mold!”

Carolina Chocolate Drops grew out of an ensemble that included Giddens, Dom Flemons, Súle Greg Wilson and others called Sankofa Strings, which performed an amalgam of African American music including country and classic blues, early jazz and “hot music,” string band numbers, African and Caribbean songs, and spoken word pieces. Among the instruments employed by Sankofa Strings were bodhrán, brushes, washboard, bones, tambourine, banjo, banjolin and ukulele.

The trio convened at the first Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, North Carolina, where Giddens studied with African American Piedmont string master Joe Thompson and where, in 2005, Carolina Chocolate Drops, with Flemons and Justin Robinson, was born. Giddens played banjo and fiddle, wrote and sang. The group was the first Black string band to ever perform at the Grand Ole Opry.

Agent Chris Colbourn of Concerted Efforts has been working with Giddens from nearly the beginning, including representing Carolina Chocolate Drops and Our Native Daughters (another co-founded group with Allison Russell, Amythyst Kiah and Leyla McCalla).

“That’s her core thing – she is kind of a nerd of music, and with opera, too,” Colbourn says. “She really studies things and just fantastic kinds of things pop out with her. But a lot of it is the preparation. Even in the early days, they practiced and practiced, but when there was a new song, we’d have a meeting and they’d be like, ‘We have to practice, you know, we’re at work. We have a new song for tomorrow.’”

Giddens’ varied endeavors might seem suited for a single, full-service agency that offers literary, theatrical, speaker, and film & TV services under one roof. But Giddens has built a team around Colbourn and Concerted Efforts for touring, and they’ve been not only loyal but keenly attuned to who Giddens is.

“I’ve kind of picked and built [a team] over the years because I talked to one of those big [agencies] and I think I scared them witless,” Giddens says. “I think I may have brought up minstrelsy immediately, but it’s good. It kind of separates the men from the boys.

“I have Chris Colbourn at Concerted Efforts and he’s been my agent since the Chocolate Drops. He was my first booking agent. I’ve never had another one. And he’s grown and learned to field different inquiries. He’s booked my speeches, he’s booked theaters. He books festivals and he’s booked the Chocolate Drops and he’s booked me [solo], and the Native Daughters. I’ve had him for a long time. And then Silkroad Ensemble is booked by Opus 3.”

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Rhiannon Giddens and Yo-Yo Ma with Silkroad Ensemble.
Photo by Rich Woods

Giddens was named Artistic Director of Silkroad, a nonprofit established by international cello great Yo-Yo Ma, promoting collaboration among artists and institutions, and multicultural artistic exchange, in 2020. She is the only one to hold the position other than Ma himself.

Silkroad Ensemble is part of the larger Silkroad project, the mission of which is to “[create] music that engages difference, sparking radical cultural collaboration and passion-driven learning for a more hopeful and inclusive world.” The Ensemble is a loose collective of as many as 59 musicians, composers, arrangers, visual artists and storytellers from around the world.

Silkroad’s newest initiative, “American Railroad,” illuminates the impact that the African American, Chinese, Indigenous and Irish and other immigrant communities had on the creation of the U.S. Transcontinental Railroad and connecting railways in North America. According to the Silkroad website, “Exploring the dissemination of cultures across the United States, the railroad was to North America what the Silk Road was to China, the Far East and Europe.”

It’s a new endeavor for Giddens, who recognized she was ready for a change. And she recognized an opportunity to expand her understanding of history and America’s cultural impact on the world and vice versa, and bring it to audiences from schools to prisons.

“There’s an educational component. There’s a carceral component of prisons. And then of course, there’s the music and the performances,” Giddens says of Silkroad’s reach. “This is something that you wouldn’t think is the right fit, but Silkroad has been around for 20 years, and so have I. At that point, I knew it was time for a new direction anyway. I’m so tied to American history.”

It’s not only Giddens’ first project with Silkroad, but one she chose. Giddens thought about where American history fits within the global context, and what the historical Silk Road – a network of Eurasian trade routes active from the second century BCE until the mid-15th century. Spanning some 4,000 miles, it played a central role in facilitating economic, cultural, political and religious interactions between East and West.

“But my whole thing has been … the whole idea of where does American history fit within the global context? So it’s bringing the Silk Road to America, because the world is in America,” Giddens says. “The first big program that I decided on as A.D. was the American Railroad, which was an idea of exploring the cultures that built the railroad [and] were affected by the railroad: Chinese, Native Americans, Irish folks, African Americans, basically the underclass. Many of them are represented in Silkroad. You could even say that the American Railroad is a continuation of the Silk Road. It’s going from Canton basically to San Francisco to New York. And everybody in the ensemble is digging deep into their own cultural backgrounds and their own connections to the history to create the music. And it’s been really beautiful.”

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Rhiannon Giddens (R) with Francesco Turrisi (L) and Jason Sypher (center) (Photo by Karen Cox)

And it’s yet another career pivot for Giddens and her team. In addition to Colbourn, she is booked for concert and speaking appearances in Europe by Katherine McVicker of Music Works International and in Australia/New Zealand by Paul Sloan of Supersonic Australia/Billions Australia.

Giddens toured several dates in the fall with Silkroad Ensemble and continues to tour behind her own music, as well as making festival appearances from Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado to Spoleto Festival in North Carolina and many in between. In the last three years, she’s averaged 640 tickets per show, primarily at performing arts centers, for an average gross of $23,801, according to Pollstar Boxoffice reports. She continues touring in 2024 in support of her latest album, You’re The One on Nonesuch.

After the Grammy Awards presentation, Giddens kicks off 2024 taking her band, which includes bassist Jason Sypher and guitarist Dirk Powell, out for 11 dates in Europe, starting Feb. 10 at Maison des Arts et de la Culture in Créteil, France. They’ll wind their way through the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, the UK, wrapping the leg at Vicar Street in Dublin, Ireland, Feb. 25. Then she heads stateside for 19 dates beginning March 13 at The Cabot in Beverly, Massachusetts, and winding down May 2 at The Paramount in Austin, Texas. In between, highlights include March 16 at the Beacon Theater in New York City and March 21-24 performing “American Railroad: Silkroad Ensemble with Rhiannon Giddens” at Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee.

In addition to her concert bookings, Giddens is managed by the Red Light Management team of Alex Kadvan, Megan Frestedt and Noelle Panepento.

“She’s so unique, and that’s what really keeps this job interesting,” says Kadvan. “Every artist has their curveballs and their different qualities. The fact that she has her hands or feet in so many different areas, it really is a pleasure because otherwise it can be a bit perhaps one-dimensional.”

Kadvan’s background is in classical music and he finds that with Giddens he has circled back in some instances to people he’s worked with in his own, earlier career as a cellist, “whether that’s the people at Carnegie Hall or other organizations she’s working with.”
In addition to her music, operatic, symphonic, Broadway and Silkroad aspirations, Giddens spent part of her downtime during the COVID pandemic writing children’s books. It’s not so much that she’s restless; it’s a creative life for her that even a global pandemic couldn’t bring to a halt. And Giddens was very intentional about building her team – flexibility and devotion to the art are paramount.

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Rhiannon Giddens (Photo by Rosie Cohe)

“I think everything from her writing books, to composing a ballet, to being the artistic director of Silkroad, to having a recording career that remains really different, keeps it interesting,” Kadvan says of managing a polymath like Giddens.

Kadvan, Colbourn and the team gathered in Ireland recently to plot out Gidden’s next phase, including the possibility of Broadway and writing a book for adults. Giddens acknowledges she may have to slow down her previously frenetic pace and make adjustments to her preparation and schedule.

“I’m 46. I’ve had no vocal issues other than the usual tiredness my whole career. Two years ago I started having problems and this past touring cycle was really rough,” she says. “I had to cancel shows for the first time. So I’m rebuilding my voice and rebuilding my technique. And if I can do that with just the technique, that would be ideal. It’s something that happens to every singer. At some point you hit a wall and all the things that you were able to do, you’re not able to do quite the same way. It’s like with athletes; your body changes and you have to shift to accommodate it. So that’s kind of what I’m doing now.”

And she’s stretching into a media presence that enables her to reach millions of people without having to tour at all. In addition to her “Aria Code” opera podcast, she started a series last spring on PBS called “My Music With Rhiannon Giddens,” dedicated to “claiming, interpreting and sharing musical heritage” and featuring interviews and performances with emerging artists across traditional American music. Her first season’s guests included Rissi Palmer, Charly Lowry, Adia Victoria, Joy Clark, Francesco Turrisi, Justin Robinson, Lalenja Harrington, Laurelyn Dossett and Allison Russell.

Russell, who spoke to Pollstar in August about her second, incandescent album The Returner, counts Giddens among her “chosen family” of artists, mentors and friends and notes her stature among artists like herself reclaiming country music’s African roots.

“I’m just so proud of her. She’s just such a brilliant, brilliant artist,” Russell says of Giddens. “She is doing consistently brave and unique and necessary work out there. I’m just so grateful for her and her place in this world and, honestly, for the friendship.”