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Singer, Fiddler Rhiannon Giddens Crosses Musical Divides

FILE - Rhiannon Giddens performs during the Americana Honors and Awards show in Nashville, Tennessee, Sept. 13, 2017.

As a singer, songwriter and instrumentalist, Rhiannon Giddens crosses musical divides.

Trained as an opera singer, she also plays a mean country fiddle. Folk, bluegrass, gospel and Irish ballads are all within her reach and she's even won a Grammy with the black string band Carolina Chocolate Drops. Now she's eager to begin work on her first musical, about a white revolt against a part African-American government in one North Carolina city three decades after the Civil War.

A native of North Carolina, Giddens is the child of a white father and black mother who married three years after the Supreme Court struck down all bans on interracial marriage in 1967. Today the versatile 40-year-old performer is winning accolades while casting a fresh spotlight on African-American contributions to early American music. She even drew from slave narratives for her latest album "Freedom Highway.'' And for her accomplishments, she recently picked up a $625,000 "genius grant'' from the MacArthur Foundation.

Helped by the award, Giddens plans to take time off from touring to work on a musical about the 1898 overthrow of a so-called fusion government of legitimately elected blacks and white Republicans in Wilmington, North Carolina. Though a footnote in many history books, the insurrection by white Democrats who burned and killed their way to power is seen as an incendiary moment in the dawning of the Jim Crow era of segregation.

Musician Rhiannon Giddens arrives at the 2017 CMT Music Awards in Nashville, Tennessee, July 6, 2017.
Musician Rhiannon Giddens arrives at the 2017 CMT Music Awards in Nashville, Tennessee, July 6, 2017.

"I think there's an opportunity to tell a story through this historical event which politically was very important,'' Giddens said in a phone interview about the revolt, which some historians likened to a coup d'etat. She recalled a pattern of violence directed against African-Americans for decades after the war and slavery's end. Among those moments: Colfax, Louisiana, when about 150 black men were killed by white Democrats in 1873, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921, when as many as 300 may have died.

Whatever she writes about the overthrow of 1898, Rhiannon Giddens is adamant there will be no similarities to "Hamilton,'' the wildly popular Broadway show written around another historic event. This won't be "Hamilton'' she said, because — a) — she doesn't write hip hop and — b) — the Wilmington history isn't as well-known as that of the former U.S. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, who was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr in 1804.

"I think there's something in between that ('Hamilton') and something like 'Oklahoma!' something narratively speaking that I want do with that piece,'' Giddens explained. "I don't know what it is yet because I haven't made it.''

Historian David Cecelski, who co-wrote a book about 1898 Wilmington titled "Democracy Betrayed,'' is excited that Giddens would bring the story to the stage.

"Art has the power to do more than just give people the facts of what happened,'' he said. "Historians have been trying to sledgehammer people into remembering these events. Maybe music offers a broader possibility of finding some kind of way to use that history to find some peace in the past and deal with our current dilemmas.''

This year Giddens made her acting debut on the CMT show "Nashville.'' And she was lauded by the MacArthur Foundation for powerful stage performances, impressive vocals and for bringing African-American contributions to folk music out front. According to the foundation, she's "introducing new audiences to the black banjoists and fiddlers whose influences have been left out of the popular narratives of folk and country's history.''

Rhiannon Giddens, left, performs with Dirk Powell during the Americana Honors and Awards awards show, Sept. 13, 2017, in Nashville, Tennessee.
Rhiannon Giddens, left, performs with Dirk Powell during the Americana Honors and Awards awards show, Sept. 13, 2017, in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 2016, Giddens won the $50,000 Steve Martin Prize for excellence in banjo and bluegrass. And in a widely praised keynote speech to the International Bluegrass Music Association business conference in Raleigh, she spoke this year about the African influence on banjo and bluegrass, long dominated by white performers and white audiences.

"So the question becomes: are we going to let bluegrass, as an art form, recognize the fullness of its history?'' she asked in her impassioned speech. "Are we going to acknowledge that the question is not, how do we get diversity into bluegrass, but how do we get diversity back into bluegrass?''

The great African-American fiddler Joe Thompson, who died in 2012 at age 93, was a mentor to Giddens, who also plays the five-string banjo.

Cece Conway, an English professor at Appalachian State University who directs the black and global banjo roots concerts at the school, said that Thompson's mentoring "anchors her music in a significant way.''

"Her ability and perspective to be able to look at the historical aspects of the music is a tremendous contribution that she's beginning to explore more and more. And her plan to take on this musical about this intense historical event is very challenging,'' he noted of her plans to explore the 1898 white revolt.

Developing a musical about the racial and political upheaval of 19th century North Carolina is a challenge Giddens feels ready to embrace.

"It's all in my head at the moment,'' she said. "But it's got time now to come out.''