Rhiannon Giddens is not only our Artist of the Month, she’s roots music’s renaissance woman. She’s an outspoken activist, a MacArthur Genius grant winner, a veritable music historian, and opera-oriented podcast host who has scored and staged a ballet, acted on a major television series, given her fair share of keynote addresses, and has helmed more than one supergroup. Somehow that list only begins to scratch the surface of Giddens’ contributions to our roots music communities. Who knows what other incredible ideas will come from her mind, her pen, and her banjo in the months and years to come.
Here’s the thing. In the flurry of credits Giddens’ bio will inevitably spit at you it’s easy to forget what might be the most important line item in her IMDb or Wikipedia profiles: she’s a damn fine picker. “Following the North Star,” an amuse-bouche of an instrumental from her 2017 release, Freedom Highway, is an excellent reminder of that fact. The bouncing, clawhammer banjo is stark against just percussion and bones, a percussive folk instrument played by hand, similar to playing the spoons. It’s a shockingly simple, but never simplistic production. Each note drips with Giddens’ understated virtuosity. Her understanding of the music’s past, present, and future is translated effortlessly by buttery fretless banjo, which retains every ounce of its haunting, melancholy potential in defiance of the tune’s forward-leaning tempo.
‘Tis sweet to be reminded that, no matter where her creative compass may take her, she’ll always have the chops — she’ll always be a killer banjo player. And, from this banjo player’s perspective, that’s what’s most important anyway!!