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Rhiannon Giddens, Tar Heel of the Year finalist, uses music to enlighten and preserve past

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The News & Observer’s Tar Heel of the Year

The News & Observer recognizes North Carolina residents who have made significant contributions in the last year and beyond. This year, we asked readers to tell us about people who have made a difference in our state. Here are our stories.

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Rhiannon Giddens spent this year’s Veterans Day performing and teaching.

After presenting a program called “When the Battle’s Over: Songs of 1898,” at the Cucalorus Film Festival in Wilmington, dusk found her at the 1898 Monument. The memorial recognizes those who perished in that year’s massacre when white mobs killed African-Americans and pillaged and burned black-owned businesses.

Giddens stood at a microphone before a crowd of about 100 and read from a list, invoking the names of some of the coup’s victims.

“John Brown. George Henry Davis. John Dow. George Gregory. John Gregory. Samuel Gregory...”

Her voice caught a bit, perhaps realizing that some of the Gregorys may have been children.

“...George Miller. Alfred White. Charles Williams...”

By the end, it was almost completely dark.

“...Daniel Wright. Unknown. Unknown...”

Giddens’ voice began to break as she choked back sobs.

“...Unknown. Unknown.”

Her task finished, Giddens bowed her head. After a pause, she began to hum, quietly. It was discernible as “Amazing Grace” and the crowd gradually picked up their cue, humming along. Message amplified.

It was remarkable to witness, like a scene from the civil-rights documentary “Eyes on the Prize.” And Giddens, an artist and historian who has been moving hearts and educating minds for over a decade, does similar things almost every day.

Giddens, 41, is a finalist for The News & Observer’s Tar Heel of the Year, which recognizes North Carolina residents who have made lasting and significant contributions in the state and beyond. For the first time, four finalists will be honored. The Tar Heel of the Year will be announced later this week.

“Rhiannon has always tried to define American music within the deepest undercurrents in American culture,” said writer John J. Sullivan, one of her collaborators. “The beauty of it is that the old music is not dead in her hands. It’s still alive, like a flame she’s tending.”

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The next ‘Hamilton’

Giddens is one of the most acclaimed musicians to come out of North Carolina. Her accolades include a Grammy Award, a 2017 MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” fellowship and the 2016 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo & Bluegrass. She also figures prominently in the soundtrack to one of 2018’s biggest video games, “Red Dead Redemption 2.”

Giddens has range beyond music, too. Her resume includes a recurring role on the former CMT series “Nashville” and hosting a new podcast, the “Aria Code,” which explores well-known opera arias.

“She’s one of those people with unlimited talent,” said fellow North Carolina musician David Holt.

The Greensboro native also has a relentless work ethic and a scholarly bent. Giddens’ beat is the many strains of American folk music and the under-represented, under-sung contributions of African-Americans to the cultural canon. That informs her next album, “Songs of Our Native Daughters” (due out Feb. 22), a collection of songs based on historical slave narratives.

Lately, Giddens’ biggest project is a still-untitled musical about the WIlmington 1898 riots. Sullivan is her co-writer on the musical, which HuffPost has likened to “The Next ‘Hamilton’” — referring to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s wildly popular hip-hop musical set in Revolutionary War America.

“Nobody can know what their legacy is going to be, you know?” Giddens said in an interview last month. “I would be thrilled with anybody who cites my work as something that inspired them.”

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From ‘Hee Haw’ to opera

Giddens was born to a white father and a black mother. She grew up in the Piedmont’s rural environs around a wide range of music and culture — blues, country, bluegrass, old-time folk music, classical. A self-described “banjo nerd,” she was well-versed in opera as well as “Hee Haw,” the long-running cornpone-country series.

“Seeing Roy Clark and all those guys and laughing, we were all laughing because we lived in the country, too,” she said. “Every time I look at it now, I think, ‘Oh my God, it’s like a hayseed minstrel show.’”

Giddens’ path took her to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio to study opera. Marlene Rosen, her voice teacher, described Giddens as “an open book” when she arrived at Oberlin.

“There’s something very special and warm and exquisite about her voice,” Rosen said in a 2010 interview, when Giddens received her first Grammy nomination. “It had its own beauty, no matter the style. She was always interested in a lot of different things. So it came as no surprise when she went off in this other direction that was equally magnificent.”

Giddens’ “other direction” turned out to be folk, beginning with the on-campus contra dances she attended for fun. After graduating in 2000, she returned home to North Carolina and reconnected with her early musical roots, taking up banjo and fiddle.

That led her to an Appalachian State University conference, 2005’s Black Banjo Gathering, where Giddens met fellow revivalists Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson. The trio became the Carolina Chocolate Drops and settled in Durham, studying with old-time fiddler Joe Thompson in nearby Mebane.

“They were the first young black string band in 80 years,” said Cecelia Conway, an Appalachian State professor who helped organize the Black Banjo Gathering. “When they played with Joe and were mentored by him, that revived a tradition, because Joe was about the last person standing. I also remember them opening for (bluesman) Taj Mahal and him saying, ‘Ah, now I can retire.’”

IMG_Grammy_Awards_Press__3_1_9U290O40
Carolina Chocolate Drops – Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson – hold their Grammy Awards for best traditional folk album. They won the Grammy Award in 2010 for “Genuine Negro Jig.” Jae C. Hong AP

Going solo

Carolina Chocolate Drops had an amazing run, reaching the pop charts with two albums — an almost unheard-of achievement for old-time music. They also won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album with their 2010 major-label debut, “Genuine Negro Jig.”

Giddens has gone on to even higher peaks as a solo act. In 2017, she gave an acclaimed keynote speech on diversity in bluegrass at the International Bluegrass Music Association’s conference in Raleigh.

A few weeks later, she won the “Genius Grant.” The MacArthur fellowship pays $625,000 over five years, and it’s opening up new possibilities.

“The best part of a MacArthur is having some pressure taken off from touring relentlessly,” Giddens told The News & Observer this fall. “And it’s letting me pursue some large-scale pieces of art like writing a ballet, an opera and this musical.”

When she’s not working, Giddens is usually caring for her two children in Ireland, daughter Aoife and son Caoimhin. (She is separated from their father, Michael Laffan). But she is devoting more and more time to the 1898 musical, pieces of which should begin to emerge in public workshops and performances in 2019.

“To be a part of somebody else’s foundation is pretty great, and you don’t always know,” she said. “So I’m fortunate that I’ve had a few validations where people have been clear that I’ve been part of their process. I’m grateful to be a link in that chain. I stood on people’s shoulders, so I want to be there for somebody else to take it even further.”

Rhiannon Giddens

Age: 41

Hometown: Greensboro

Family: Two children

Education: Bachelor’s of Music, Oberlin Conservatory of Music

Accomplishments: MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” Fellowship, 2017; Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo & Bluegrass, 2016; induction into North Carolina Music Hall of Fame with Carolina Chocolate Drops, 2016; Grammy Award with Carolina Chocolate Drops, 2010.

Tar Heel of the Year

This year, there are four finalists, revealed in alphabetical order, with the Tar Heel of the Year to be announced Saturday at newsobserver.com. Here is who has been announced so far:

Richard Brunson: The executive director of NC Baptists on Mission since 1992 has made the organization’s volunteers a critical component of disaster response in North Carolina and around the country, including hurricanes and earthquakes.

Rhiannon Giddens: The musician is one of the most acclaimed to come out of North Carolina. Her accolades include a Grammy Award and a 2017 MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” fellowship. She focuses on the under-represented, under-sung contributions of African-Americans to the cultural canon.

Jaki Shelton Green: Green is the North Carolina Poet Laureate, the state’s first African-American to hold the role. She has made a career out of reaching out to diverse, under-represented communities to find the poetry there.

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David Menconi has covered music and the arts for The News & Observer since 1991. He can be reached at 919-829-4759 or dmenconi@newsobserver.com.

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