By winning the Steve Martin prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, Rhiannon Giddens stands as an important symbol for understanding an instrument that, while it provides the principal sound that has helped define bluegrass music, has a long, deep musical history.
Bluegrass fans and players tend to recognize the moment when Earl Scruggs joined the Blue Grass Boys onstage at the Ryman in 1945 as the moment of the genre's origin. But the origins of the banjo in American music can be traced back considerably farther, to Africa. Nineteenth-century American portraits show enslaved people playing gourd banjos, and the instrument was played well before the '40s in minstrel music. It was popularized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in banjo orchestras and Mummers parades.
The Steve Martin Prize, funded by the multitalented comedian/writer/musician/etc., has, throughout its brief history, sought to broaden the understanding and recognition of outstanding accomplishment on the five-string banjo and in bluegrass music. The prize consists of an unrestricted cash award of $50,000, as well as a bronze sculpture. The winner is selected annually by a board composed of J.D. Crowe, Pete Wernick, Tony Trischka, Anne Stringfield, Alison Brown, Neil V. Rosenberg, Béla Fleck, and Steve Martin. Previous winners have been Noam Pikelny, Sammy Shelor, Mark Johnson, Jens Kruger, Eddie Adcock, Danny Barnes, and, now, Rhiannon Giddens.
The winners have demonstrated excellence and unique creativity on the banjo while forging new ways to expand the range of the instrument and the music it's associated with. Each winner has demonstrated a distinctive style with which he, or now she, is associated, with all previous winners being white men who first were recognized in association with bluegrass. Their reach on the instrument has contributed to an understanding of what bluegrass is, has extended it, or has taken a path into musical forms not seen before as associated with the banjo.
Notably on both counts, Rhiannon Giddens is the first woman and the first nonwhite person to win the award.
Giddens, born in 1977 in Greensboro, North Carolina, has been on a fast track for a number of years. She graduated from Oberlin Conservatory of Music in 2000 with a major in opera. In 2005, she participated in the Black Banjo Gathering, where the seed of what became the Carolina Chocolate Drops formed. That group became known for collecting and reintroducing songs from Southern black communities. The late fiddler Joe Thompson shared a wealth of music with the original members of the Chocolate Drops and, in many ways, helped inspire their collective and individual careers.
Thompson died at age 93 in 2012, and has been given credit for helping keep alive the black stringband tradition, which strongly influenced both bluegrass and country music.
In performance, Giddens presents a stunningly powerful persona, whether in her singing, dancing, banjo, or fiddle playing; her writing; or her presentation of the history of black music and the place of the banjo within it.
My wife and I first saw the Carolina Chocolate Drops at Merlefest, in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, around 2008. The group distinguished itself at this large music festival, which says it stands for "traditional-plus" music, largely through Giddens' directness about the proliferation of the banjo as a gourd instrument in slave communities and its influence on Southern music. While challenging many people's preconceptions about where their favorite bluegrass instrument originated, her presentation was warm and welcoming enough not to ruffle feathers. She shared her story with conviction, not anger.
While Giddens is the only remaining member of the original lineup of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, that group's influence on music continues to grow as her own career blossoms into new and challenging directions.
Meanwhile, as with so many questing spirits, Giddens' interests and reach have spread ever wider.
She was selected to participate in an experiment writing tunes for Bob Dylan lyrics, released as the album, Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes, produced by T Bone Burnett. On that project, she worked with Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Jim James, and Taylor Goldsmith. This fascinating experiment exploring the creative process is available in a filmed documentary, in which Giddens and the others explore the challenge of trying to place Dylan's lyrics into a new musical context. Giddens is particularly interesting in this film, as her internal self-analysis explores her concerns about her own suitability in the company she's keeping.
As a multi-talented over-achiever, her other accomplishments often overshadow her banjo work, such that the banjo becomes a part of -- rather than central to -- her performances.
With a vocal instrument like the one displayed in the clip above -- its power, control, and presence -- there's no telling where Rhiannon Giddens' hard work will take her.
The Steve Martin Prize seems almost to be an award for only a portion of her development -- one she may already be leaving behind her, as opportunities in film, television, and theater have begun to open up for her. However, Giddens' commitment to opening the vision of new opportunities for others seems to be part of a greater pattern.
With homes in both North Carolina and Scotland -- where she and her husband, musician Michael Laffan, live part of the year -- Rhiannon Giddens may provide a model of the 21st-century world performer, whose work and achievement transcend race, genre, instrument, or any particular performance setting.
Listen to her work, look at her videos, and see her perform live. You won't regret it!