Giddens talks Nashville, Gaelic singing and writing songs on the bus
Rhiannon Giddens (photo by Tanya Rosen-Jones)
For someone who appears in a television programme that’s all about creating commercial success in the music business, Rhiannon Giddens is remarkably good at following non-money-making career paths.
The singer, songwriter, banjo player and fiddler who plays gospel singer Hanna Lee Jordan in hit country music soap Nashville formed the Carolina Chocolate Drops in the mid-noughties to honour black string band figures such as Joe Thompson. She has since named her second solo album, Freedom Highway, after its title track, the Staple Singers’ civil rights anthem, and laughs that neither move was a sure-fire dollar-earner.
In folk music terms, the very fine Carolina Chocolate Drops did turn out to be successful, even if their modus operandi wouldn’t have fit with the pursuit of outrageous wealth, and while responses such as “you sing that song so nicely” aren’t quite what Giddens had in mind when she decided to cover Freedom Highway, she can feel some movement in people’s attitudes as she continues to sing it.
“It’s kind of unfortunate that Freedom Highway itself is so topical right now,” she says down the line from her record company’s office as she prepares for the tour that brings her back to Scotland this weekend, this time with her sister, Lalenja, and nephew, Justin Harrington, for company. “But the things that have been going on in the U.S. and are being seen on the TV news have been going on all the time. We’re uncovering them rather than discovering them and if there’s one positive thing you can say about this current administration it’s that people’s eyes have been opened. If by singing that song and the other songs on the album I can make people get up off the couch and start voting, then I feel I’m achieving something.”
Giddens has been surprised by the response being in Nashville has brought. She wasn’t quite prepared for the series’ popularity and thought she was taking on a fairly minor role as the gospel singer who introduces one of the show’s two main characters to church music. In the series, the album they made together flopped but in real life Giddens has been on an upward curve since she left the Carolina Chocolate Drops and went solo. Her recent receipt of a MacArthur Genius grant, which comes with a no-strings-attached payment of $625,000 over five years, would be one factor to mark her out from her co-stars on the series – her fluency in Scottish Gaelic singing would be another.
We’ll come to her Gaelic singing in a minute but beyond giving her more time to spend at home with her two children and devote more time to thinking about her music, her MacArthur award isn’t going to change her focus.
“I’m working on the sixth season of Nashville at the moment and we’re just getting on with the story, really,” she says. “It’s been good for me in that I get recognised much more when I’m out and about than I did before I joined the cast, but I’ve also learned a lot. I’d done some onstage things when I studied opera and I’ve done a couple of shows where I appeared as a singer but I’d never had a part before. They really took me on as a complete beginner as an actress and they seem happy with the job I’m doing.”
As someone who has experience of the music business she can tell where things are exaggerated for televisual effect, of course, but what attracted her to the part was when she watched the first two series, she could see that a lot of what was going on was close to reality.
“There’s a lot of detail that’s believable,” she says. “It got a bit soap opera-ish for a time in series three and four but they’ve pulled it back to where things happen that really do go on – people hooking up on the road, say – and what I like about it is, it’s keeping up with what’s happening in the music industry and all the actors really work on making it as real as possible. A lot of them are good musicians and they’ll work on making their guitar parts look right rather than strumming thin air.”
Her character, as far as she knows at least, isn’t about to record an album of Scottish Gaelic songs, although Giddens has the repertoire and language at her fingertips.
“That came about when I was seeing this fellow who spoke Gaelic and I got heavily into it too,” she says. “I’m really interested in history and when I looked into the settlers who came to my home state, North Carolina, I found that the largest settlement of Hebridean islanders outside of Scotland was right there in North Carolina. And of course, it turned out there were African-Americans who spoke Gaelic, so I thought, this is part of my heritage. I listened to Alan Lomax’s recordings of Gaelic singers and the women reminded me of Native American pow wow singers, which is also part of my heritage. Then I got into the effects of English colonialism and how they destroyed culture and that fired me up.”
Learning songs from Cathy-Ann MacPhee, from Barra but long resident in North America, and Margaret Bennett, mother of the late Martyn Bennett and a respected scholar of Gaelic culture, followed and waulking songs, as Giddens’ audience at Perth Concert Hall’s Southern Fried festival a year or two back discovered, became a particular passion.
Giddens’ love of history has taken her down some more painful roads. The track At the Purchaser’s Option from Freedom Highway came to her after she’d spent some time researching old newspapers and came across an advertisement from the 1830s offering a young woman for sale. As the advertisement read, 'She has with her a 9-month old baby, who is at the purchaser's option.' Giddens was struck by not just the inhumanity of what this young mother was probably going through but also the callousness that could leave a child parentless in this way.
“Finding something like that is a kind of gold dust for a songwriter,” she says. “But if you look into the newspapers’ libraries there are so many of these adverts. As soon as I read that line I picked up my banjo and the song’s riff just tumbled out. The song started writing itself, although I got stuck after I had the chorus and the first verse. I wrote the third verse later but the second verse just wouldn’t come.”
She completed the song on the band bus while touring with Transatlantic Sessions with the help from Joey Ryan of the Milk Carton Kids.
“We were driving somewhere and talking about songwriting when I told Ryan that I had this idea that I’d started but couldn’t finish,” she says. “He listened to what I had and thought about the background story and I love this, here you have this tall, white guy from California and he goes and writes the most heart-breaking line in a song about a black slave, ‘He took me to bed a little girl, left me in a woman’s world.’ That shows me that we can feel each other’s pain and problems have a universality that we can all understand if we open the door to that understanding.”
Rhiannon Giddens plays Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Sunday, November 26.
From The Herald, November 22, 2017.
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