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Get to Know the Banjo Player on Beyoncé’s First Country Song

46-year-old Rhiannon Giddens shares her musical journey, from North Carolina to the BeyHive

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Rhiannon Giddens in London on July 19, 2023. The historically minded, socially conscious musician offers bluesy, racy, playful tracks on "You're the One," her first full album of her own songs.
Serena Brown/The New York Times/Redux

After music fans came down a bit from the surprise news that Beyoncé is releasing a country album (Act II, coming March 29), attention turned to one of her key collaborators in this genre shift. One of the album’s already-released singles, “Texas Hold ’Em,” prominently features the expert banjo playing of Americana darling Rhiannon Giddens. Seems a natural fit, as Giddens has been instrumental in promoting the contributions of Black musicians to country music, and she noted in Ken Burns’ Country Music docuseries that the banjo has African roots.

AARP recently interviewed Giddens on the heels of the 46-year-old’s 2023 Pulitzer Prize win for an opera she cocomposed with Michael Abels. It’s called Omar, and it centers on Omar Ibn Said, a Muslim Senegalese scholar captured in Africa in the 1800s and sold into slavery in America. That’s pretty weighty stuff, but she also recently put out more mainstream fare, a solo album called You’re the One. Here’s what Giddens told us about her musical journey, from North Carolina to the BeyHive.

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She picked up music very young.

“I was singing with my dad and my sister before I could speak,” Giddens says of growing up in Greensboro. “I had a normal soundtrack of someone who grew up in the country. My Black grandmother loved Roy Clark, so we watched Hee Haw every Saturday night, and I listened to whatever she put on — blues, jazz, contemporary Black gospel, a bit of everything.” From the white side of her family, she developed a love of Hank Williams.

Opera was an early interest.

“I was drawn to opera because they sing all the time and I wanted to sing,” Giddens says. She went on to study opera theater at Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio.

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Rhiannon Giddens performs at National Sawdust on Aug. 17, 2023, in New York.
Andy Kropa/Invision/AP Newsroom

And then she went back to traditional American music.

“I found folk dance and string band music. I hadn’t really been an instrumentalist. I was just curious,” Giddens says. She now plays banjo, violin/fiddle and viola. “The banjo is part of the hidden history of America. I found out as a North Carolinian first, and then as a person of color second, that the banjo is an instrument created in the Americas by people from the African diaspora.”

She has recorded as part of a band (the Carolina Chocolate Drops) and as a solo artist. So far she’s won two Grammys, in the folk and American roots categories.

“I’m a really old-fashioned songwriter,” Giddens says. “I love a good song where you use the cleverness of the words to tell a story. Someone said to me after a show, ‘Different is your genre.’ I love that.” Her latest album, You’re the One, pays homage to great songwriters, with songs inspired by Dolly Parton, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin and Patti Page.

The Pulitzer was a surprise.

“It’s crazy! Omar was just such a labor of love.” The work came about through her relationship with the Spoleto Festival USA, an arts festival in Charleston, South Carolina. “They had never commissioned an opera before, and they commissioned a banjo player who had never written an opera before. I’ve never had a composition class in my life. I can barely read music. But that’s been my secret of success. If I think there’s a chance, I’ll say yes and then I’ll figure out who’s the best person to help me realize it.”

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She’s on a mission with her music.

Music fans might recall that Giddens was a significant presence in Burns’ Country Music series, helping set the record straight on the origins of the art form, among other matters of history. “My main mission is uncovering the truth. Because the real history of America is so much more interesting than the one that we are fed.” In particular, she finds purpose in “highlighting voices and stories of people who have historically not been highlighted. The fact that Omar’s story will reach more people because of it — I’m not going to lie — it’s pretty cool.”

She believes in continued growth.

“It’s never too late to learn something new, to add your voice to what’s going on,” Giddens says. “I started playing fiddle and banjo when I was 23 or 24, and now I make a living with it. I had my first solo record at 36. Pick up a banjo. It’s never too late. And give yourself permission to not know what you’re doing, not be good or even to suck.”

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