A New Window
If there is one word that can describe the panoply of musical and intellectual voices that is Rhiannon Giddens, it is kaleidoscopic. A serious disciple of old-time music who first sprang to the public’s attention with her band the Carolina Chocolate Drops in the mid-aughts, this MacArthur fellow and our current cover star is now using her arsenal of talents to write an opera.
According to a report in the The New York Times published just before this issue went to press, the story is set in South Carolina and is based on the life of Omar ibn Said, an African-Muslim scholar who was enslaved and transported to America in 1807 and whose memoir, written in Arabic, is one of the rarest treasures of 19th century letters.
For nearly a decade, Giddens has been heralded as a luminary in the world of Americana, and for some time, she was one of the few African-American faces represented. Though she has since opened doors in roots music for several musicians of color, this is an artist for whom genre is perceptibly irrelevant. The 42-year-old banjoist is charting her own path, and as she explains in this issue’s cover story by Marissa R. Moss, she is not about to let anyone else dictate the terms of what country and folk music is or is not. Napoleon once said that “history is a set of lies that people have agreed upon,” and where that idea holds true for the conventional narratives of American music that are held up as Gospel, Giddens has provided a voice of clarity and completion. “The story is not that the banjo is from Africa, the story is why don’t we know that,” she says.
Giddens’ latest studio album, a collaboration with jazz musician Francesco Turrisi called there is no Other, finds her stretching the boundaries of her native folk idioms into reaches that are seldom explored, touching on elements of Arabic and Mediterranean music, even on songs like the traditional standard “Wayfaring Stranger.” The album is not so much an escape into the remote as it is an attempt to show the musical connections that apply the world over. At a time when it seems that the old tropes of country and folk have been completely exhausted, along comes a new artist with the capacity to offer a tectonic shift of perspective, and provide a whole new window through which to view our shared musical past.
We also check in with the eminently quotable David Crosby, who is the subject of the new feature-length documentary Remember My Name. The movie, which was co-produced by Cameron Crowe, examines the artist’s star-crossed history with his Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young bandmates. It also addresses his newfound approach to collaboration, an approach that he says is devoid of the trappings of rock-star ego, the very Achilles heel that sank the CSN&Y ship.
Jimmy Webb, one of our all-time great story songwriters, is back with a new album of solo piano instrumentals titled Slipcover. This curious offering features songs by Billy Joel, The Rolling Stones and Joni Mitchell, among others, and attempts to make the case that our best rock and roll composers deserve to be held in as high esteem as those that populate the pre-war Great American Songbook.
We also hear from John Fogerty who performed in residency in Las Vegas earlier this year and will return again this fall. Like so many great songwriters we’ve talked to in these pages over the years, Fogerty says some of his best work is a result of channeling the great muse, and explains his sense of awe and wonder after completing “Proud Mary” as a fledgling songwriter. “I started with nothing and it would be there,” he tells Paul Zollo. “It’s kind of daunting. You’re kind of scared.”
Elsewhere, we profile some of the most promising young songwriters on the scene today. One of those artists, Caroline Spence, recently released her debut album on Rounder Records, the title track of which won the grand prize in our lyric contest back in 2013. We also talk with Patrick Stickles of the New Jersey punk band Titus Andronicus, whose latest album was produced by a personal hero of Stickles’, Bob Mould of Hüsker Dü fame. And finally, we catch up with David Berman, a poet and songwriter best known as the frontman of the late, lamented indie-cult band Silver Jews. After nearly a decade of silence, or “playing chicken with oblivion,” as he sings, Berman has returned with a new project called Purple Mountains, an inspired collaboration with the band Woods that is full of bon mots and stands alongside some of his best work.