The deeper the roots, the stronger the branches. And you know you have a string band worthy of carving its own legacy in roots music when its branches fan wide, and begin to drop acorns to give birth to new trees. From Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, to Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys, all the way up to today’s string bands like Old Crow Medicine Show and The Steeldrivers—they’ve all been nesting grounds and stepping stones for artists so steeped in talent, they went on to solo careers, while the root string band continued to sustain itself and bear new fruit.
It may not seem like it, but the Carolina Chocolate Drops have been around for a decade now, and their spirit of reviving the “Genuine Negro Jig” has proven to be resonant, and a necessary piece that was missing in the roots puzzle before Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemmons, and Justin Robinson started the band in North Carolina. The Carolina Chocolate Drops have gone on to prove themselves much more than a novelty that fulfills a guilt-riddled need for diversity by the NPR crowd. They are an elite outfit in the string band space. Dom Flemmons has since moved on to start his own solo career, and Rhiannon Giddens decided earlier this year to release a solo record called Tomorrow Is My Turn.
If there’s any trouble with trying to launch a throwback jug band, it’s that the medium can be quite limiting to your talents. To be authentic, you have to stay tight within time periods and influences, and that can be frustrating to an artist who wants to test their creative horizons, and sing out from their heart instead of confining themselves to a narrow discipline.
When Tomorrow Is My Turn was first announced, there were some particulars that could be a turn off. First, this was basically a covers album. Granted, the songs selected were hard to squabble with—“She’s Got You” written by Hank Cochran and popularized by Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton’s “Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind,” and other tantalizing selections. But it’s a covers album nonetheless. And though some will purchase anything with T Bone Burnett at the producer’s helm, it’s been hard not to become a bit leery of Burnett’s output recently after a few questionable decisions with some of his releases.
So this February release wasn’t written off, but it was sidelined for more original projects in the Saving Country Music review schedule. And then Rhiannon Giddens preformed “Waterboy” on the 2015 Americana Music Awards in September, and absolutely stole the show. Coupled with her stunning musical response to the Charleston, South Carolina race shooting, Rhiannon Giddens and Tomorrow Is My Turn was demanding a serious revisit.
It’s not that the Carolina Chocolate Drops hadn’t lent to Giddens being able to showcase her voice and spirit before, but this new, unbridled material was something on an entirely new level. In fairness, the studio recording of “Waterboy” probably doesn’t do justice to the live version captured at the AMA’s. But whatever version you choose as your favorite, it’s testimony to how the efforts of Rhiannon Giddens are certainly no artifice. The boldness evidenced, from even starting a band like the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and to bearing yourself in such naked compositions like “Waterboy” and “Cry No More” shows incredible resolve and courage that is unfortunately so fleeting throughout the music of today.
We just didn’t have this kind of verification of the strength of Rhiannon Giddens’ vocal abilities until this project. Sometimes it takes someone else’s songs to really challenge a singer to where their limits are tested, and their utmost talents are expended trying to do a classic composition justice. That’s what makes Tomorrow Is My Turn such a worthy effort. And the diversity of material, though mostly centered around country music, but also delving into jazz and soul, makes Giddens’ command of both effort and style that much more impressive.
Along with “Waterboy,” Rhiannon’s remake of “She’s Got You” positively stuns. This might be the best rendition since Patsy’s. But on the flip side, the opening track “Last Kind Words” is kind of understated and dirty. So Giddens doesn’t have to rear back and blow you away with her voice to get you to pay attention. Her version of “Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind” really highlights what’s great about a song possibly some have forgotten.
But alas Tomorrow Is My Turn is probably fair to call a record that you will find favor with some songs, and others not. “Up Above My Head” kind of struggled to get off the ground, especially surrounded by such soaring efforts like “Round About The Mountain.” And the beat boxing of “Black As The Color” just felt a little forced here, even though it’s worked admirably on Chocolate Drops projects in the past. T Bone really needs to get past his phase of putting tambourine on everything as well. The great songs on the album are so great, you tend to gravitate towards them, and some others can get forgotten.
What we shouldn’t ever forget henceforth is what a singular, spirited singing talent Rhiannon Giddens is, with strong roots and wide branches that reach beyond the shade of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and comprise her own beautiful blossoming tower of verdant talent.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up (8/10)
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