Rhiannon Giddens Doesn’t Just Want to Be a Folk Singer Anymore, And We’re Here For It

On her new album ‘You’re The One’ one of Americana music’s most vital voices expands her sound without abandoning her roots.


By David Browne for Rolling Stone

Opening with a fiddle and banjo straight out of a folk recital, “You’re the One,” the title track on Rhiannon Giddens’ third album under her own name, starts the way one would expect a Giddens song to open. Addressing one of her children, she sings in a voice that’s warm and comforting, yet firm and watchful. Then the unexpected happens: With a jolt of drums and crashing chords, the music erupts in a mini-maelstrom, and you’re neither in Kansas, or a typical Giddens album, anymore.

With each record in her extensive discography, Giddens, one of our foremost and most historically minded Americana artists, has loosened up a bit more. Her early work with the old-timey string band Carolina Chocolate Drops and her 2009 Celtic folk meditation All the Pretty Horses pegged her as a traditionalist, but 2017’s Freedom Highway also made room for a guest rapper. On You’re the One, she’s never sounded more eager to connect with more than just folkniks, and few have made the idea of crossing over more appealing than she does with this record.

With her “minstrel banjo” leading the way, Giddens hasn’t completely abandoned her base. “Way Over Yonder,” where she dreams of leaving everyday stress behind and finding a funky dive with good music and “the best fried chicken for miles around,” is both rousing and spiritual. But the bulk of the songs — almost all written or co-written by Giddens — are more visceral, lyrically and musically. She romps through the saucy country-Cajun stomper “You Louisiana Man,” and other moments recall the surprisingly authentic originals heard in Nashville, the late, lamented TV drama in which Giddens had a small recurring role. “Yet to Be,” with Jason Isbell harmonizing, tells a story straight out of a folk tale: Girl from a farm meets Liverpool-immigrant boy, and a deep bond and true love ensue. As a story-song, it recalls the narrative side of later-period Paul Simon, but the music has the brawny feel of spunky modern country.
Giddens throws herself with equal fervor into the timeless art of the woman’s country revenge song. The beleaguered work-at-home mom in “If You Don’t Know How Sweet It Is” and the wife grappling with a ne’er-do-well in “Too Little, Too Late, Too Bad” are direct descendants of Loretta Lynn’s proto-feminist anthems. Giddens’ approach is more formal than Lynn’s, but she’s still never sounded so pugnacious. In the latter, she sings, “That ship it ain’t just sailed/It’s way on out to sea,” adding slyly, “Gettin’ smaller every minute.” “Hen in the Foxhouse” finds her literally hitting back when she finds herself in a macho-dominated night-life nightmare.

Speaking of channeling feisty predecessors, the ghost of Nina Simone hovers here too. The saucy and swinging “You Put the Sugar in My Bowl” (“You’re the toast to my jelly baby/And the butter in my roll”) tips its hat to Simone’s “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl” — which, in turn, was inspired by Bessie Smith’s “Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl.” Whatever the source, the song retains its sultry barroom bawdiness.

In the past, Giddens has covered “Black Is the Color,” the traditional ballad largely associated with Simone. This time, she makes the connections with Simone more upfront and contemporary. “Another Wasted Life” was inspired by the story of Kalief Browder, a Black teenager who spent three years in jail for allegedly stealing a backpack, was released after charges against him were dropped but then committed suicide at his parents’ home.
The song doesn’t lay out the specifics of his story — which is too bad, since it’s a tragic tale meant for a Sixties-protest-song treatment — yet it’s still one of the most dramatic pieces of music she’s ever made. Its brooding, percussive track hints at hip hop, and Giddens chews on mouthful phrases like “institutional caprice” with the same simmering, if more contained, rage Simone brought to her songs. In each chorus, she sings the phrase “it’s just another wasted life” four times, and the indignation in her voice rises every so slightly with each repetition — a master class in nuanced phrasing.

You’re the One occasionally suffers from its lofty goals: “Who Are You Dreaming Of,” which sets her voice to luxurious orchestration ordinary reserved for pre-rock standards, feels oddly out of place. But on her most outward-looking record, Giddens melds the past and present, writing a bold new future for herself in the process.