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Interview: Rhiannon Giddens rides on Freedom Highway 

The former Carolina Chocolate Drop performs May 5 at Jazz Fest 2017

click to enlarge Rhiannon Giddens and Dirk Powell co-produced her new album Freedom Highway.

Rhiannon Giddens and Dirk Powell co-produced her new album Freedom Highway.

Rhiannon Giddens, flying solo following her decade-long run with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, started 2017 with two Grammy nominations. She wasn't expecting them.

  Giddens' Factory Girl received a nomination for best folk album and one for best Americana roots performance for the EP's title song.

  A fiddler, banjo player and vocalist, Giddens recorded Factory Girl with producer T Bone Burnett during the same sessions that yielded her solo album debut, 2015's Tomorrow Is My Turn.

  "It's an EP, so I wasn't paying any attention to the Grammys," Giddens recalls. "It was a lovely surprise."

  Audiences who've seen Giddens in concert probably weren't surprised. When she applies her operatic alto and dramatic presence to folk songs, blues, country classics and the traditional black string-band repertoire in which the Carolina Chocolate Drops specialized, Giddens electrifies.

  In addition to touring with the Chocolate Drops and her own band, Giddens' career is marked by appearances at high-profile special events. In 2015, she performed for the nationally televised The Gospel Tradition: In Performance at the White House and Shining a Light: A Concert for Progress on Race in America. In September 2013, her knockout turn at the Another Place, Another Time concert at New York City's Town Hall led to her first solo album.

  Giddens impressed producer Burnett, curator for Another Place, Another Time, a concert celebrating music from Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers film set during the early 1960s folk music scene.

  "It was clear the first time I heard her at rehearsal that Rhiannon is next in a long line of singers that includes Marian Anderson, Ethel Waters, Rosetta Tharpe, Odetta, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone," Burnett said later. "We need that person in our culture. She is, in fact, that person in our culture."

  Burnett is a 13-time Grammy winner who has produced projects for Elton John, Roy Orbison, Elvis Costello, the duo Robert Plant and Alison Krauss and the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.

  "T Bone brought so much," Gidden says of her sessions with him. "His encyclopedic knowledge of American roots music, his energy, his team of crack musicians and engineers — the list goes on. I chose most of the songs, but from there it was T Bone's show."

  Giddens' collaboration with Burnett informed her new solo album, Freedom Highway.

  "T Bone showed me a lovely way of working with people, of creating the atmosphere, choosing the right people and letting the magic happen," she says.

  Giddens chose Breaux Bridge multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell as a co-producer for Freedom Highway. Giddens and Powell perform together as a duo, and he's a member of her touring band this summer.

  "Dirk and I go toe-to-toe in a fearless way," Giddens says. "It's not competitive. Both of us want the song to win, no matter what. And the songs at the heart of this album, the slave narrative songs, are close to me. I wanted to work on them with someone who was right there with me in the thinking of them, who I could trust them with 100 percent."

  They recorded Freedom Highway at Powell's studio in Breaux Bridge, in cypress-walled rooms built before the Civil War.

  "When Dirk told me about his studio, which has seen so much unfathomable history, I thought, 'We've got to do this,' " she says. "The place is a part of the recording."

  History and the ongoing tension surrounding race in America inspired much of Freedom Highway.

  "The more I learn about this beautiful, complex, tragic country, the more I want to say about it," Giddens says. "I want to be a conduit for voices that have not gotten enough 'airplay' in the first 500 years of the Americas."

  Yet Freedom Highway has lighter moments, too. A riff by the virtuoso Creole accordionist and zydeco pioneer Amede Ardoin inspired the happy dance number, "Hey Bebe."

  "I am a beginner in it," Giddens says. "But I love, love, love Creole and Cajun music."

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