One year ago, I posted the same picture you see above of Rhiannon Giddens, with her fingers touching and her eyes shifted to the side like she’s about to hatch some devilish plan, and I told you, the sainted Saving Country Music reader, to watch out for what she had in store.
“We’re not screwing around anymore here folks,” I said. “She’s not doing it through slithering her way into pop country songwriting circles, or selling out with some big single that may impact country radio. She’s doing it by being her own badass self, and in a way that gives the music and entertainment industry no choice but to pay attention, and figure out how to apply her talents to whatever they’re doing because she’s just so damn good and they want to be a part of it.”
This assessment was in acknowledgement of Rhiannon’s efforts on Eric Church’s big single at the time called “Kill A Word,” and the fact that she had landed a semi-regular spot on the cast of the television drama Nashville, on top of securing $50,000 in cash for 2016’s Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass.
But we’re not here a year later to celebrate my divination skills, however keen they may be (cough). We’re here to acknowledge the continued accomplishments of Rhiannon Giddens, including a new cash reward for her efforts that with all due respect to Steve Martin and his banjo prize, makes that look like a drop in the bucket.
On Tuesday (10/11), it was announced that the founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops turned dynamic solo performer would be one of 24 recipients of 2017’s MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grants,” affording her a whopping $625,000. MacArthur’s Genius Grants are intended to allow recipients the ability to pursue their work without financial concern—something almost essential for an artist in country music who happens to be a woman, and a woman of African American descent. The award will be handed out in installments to Giddens over the next five years.
Without having to to worry about the music industry’s fat cats loosening the purse strings for her, Giddens is now free to explore her creative muse unencumbered. You thought Giddens was cooking up a devilish plan in 2016? Well this very well may just be the start.
Less than two weeks ago, Rhiannon Giddens was asked to deliver the keynote address at the International Bluegrass Music Association, or IBMA gathering in her native state of North Carolina. Giddens said in part,
My goal here, today, is to say that what makes this bluegrass, old-time, and other forms of music so powerful is that there is room for everyone to explore these incredible traditions. I want people to understand—that recognizing the African American presence within these traditions does not come at the expense of trying to erase all of the other tradition bearers who have already received so much of our attention. I want to celebrate the greater diversity of the people who have shaped the music that is so much a part of my identity. I want the public to appreciate this string band music, this bluegrass music, as a creole music that comes from many influences—a beautiful synchronization of the cultures that call this country home. I don’t want to minimize, trivialize, or ignore anyone’s passion to explore this music. I just want them to understand, as fully as possible, the entire picture. If we are going to embrace greater diversity in bluegrass music, then we must be willing to acknowledge the best and worst parts of tradition.
There’s a reason the MacArthur Foundation decided to drop $625,000 on a slap knee hillbilly banjo player when there were university scientists, medical researchers, human rights advocates, playwrights, public art designers, and symphonic composers all vying for that same lump of cash, and it’s not because MacArthur was a big fan of the clawhammer. It’s because, as Rhiannon Giddens said at the IBMAs, “The ability of musicians and artists to cross artificially-created boundaries and mix and mingle and become something new is exemplified in American string band music.”
Rhiannon Giddens embodies that spirit more than anyone. In the midst of the ever more entrenching culture war, Rhiannon Giddens is a bridge. And not because she’s an African American making distinctly white music, but because she’s an American helping to keep alive the primitive music that emerged out of the diaspora of numerous cultures displaced from foreign lands to settle in the Appalachian region of the United States, and used wood and wire to find fellowship through their shared struggle.
You don’t think old hillbilly music has the ability to help change the world? Well the MacArthur Foundation just bet $625,000 that Rhiannon Giddens can prove you wrong.