If you need testimony that Rhiannon Giddens is a talent to watch in 2015, listen to Bonnie Raitt.
Roughly a year ago, Raitt was sitting upstairs at the Troubadour in West Hollywood before performing at the Americana Music Assn.'s annual pre-Grammy Awards showcase. She was already having a fine time when the Carolina Chocolate Drops singer stepped to the microphone and unleashed a riveting rendition of Odetta’s traditional work song, “Waterboy.”
“I was flipping out,” Raitt said of Giddens, whose T-Bone Burnett-produced solo debut album, “Tomorrow Is My Turn,” arrived last week. “She’s poised to cross over — there’s nothing about her that wouldn’t appeal to anyone, in any genre.”
It’s the kind of response Giddens frequently has been generating since she began stepping into the spotlight a little over a year ago after roughly 10 years of performing with the Chocolate Drops, the band she helped create to explore the often-overlooked body of African American string band music.
Burnett himself was knocked out when she performed at “Another Day, Another Time,” the all-star folk music celebration he curated in New York on the heels of the Coen Brothers’ folk music-steeped, “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
"[The show] spanned about 60 years and three generations of musicians,” Burnett recalled about hearing Giddens that night. “Everybody’s playing and singing together — and she completely killed it.”
Her performance received the only standing ovation of the show, and Burnett has compared it to the night in 1970 when he witnessed Elton John’s U.S. debut at the Troubadour, an engagement that almost overnight made the British rocker a star stateside.
Giddens has been turning up in a number of other high-profile places as well. She recorded a song inside a vintage Voice-O-Graph booth at Jack White’s Third Man Records in an Apple commercial that aired in December, and producers of “Parenthood” tapped her, along with Iron and Wine, to sing a new version of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” for last month’s series finale.
It’s all been part of a head-spinning year for Giddens in which her career has exploded in several directions.
“I’m never going to have another year like this,” Giddens, 37, said while sipping tea she’d brewed up in her hotel room on a recent swing through Los Angeles. “I’ll have better ones. I’ll probably have worse ones. But I’ll never have another year like this because there’s a lot of fundamental things that have changed for me.”
Giddens’ album charts a strikingly diverse path, from “Waterboy” to Dolly Parton’s “Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind” to Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s inspirational gospel song, “Up Above My Head,” to the title track, a Charles Aznavour chanson famously sung in an English translation by torch singer Nina Simone.
What’s most striking about Giddens’ voice is its seemingly effortless ability to adapt to different musical styles, a trait she developed growing up in a musically diverse household in North Carolina.
She picked up guitar, fiddle and banjo along the way, the latter two figuring prominently in her recordings with the Chocolate Drops, whose 2010 album, “Genuine Negro Jig,” won the Grammy Award for traditional folk album.
Her interests took her in widely varying directions, inspiring her to study opera at Oberlin Music Conservatory and to delve deep into contra folk dance, which she often breaks into during concerts. She became fascinated with Celtic music and learned the Irish language as she worked to learn its traditions inside out.
“When I get into something,” she said with a laugh, “I really get into it.”
In stepping out from the Chocolate Drops (the band will accompany her on the solo tour she undertakes this year, including their stop May 9 at the El Rey), Giddens started looking more deeply at where she wanted to take her wide-ranging musical gifts.
After founding member Don Flemons left the Chocolate Drops in 2013 to pursue a solo career, Giddens said, “the whole transition of the band was really making me think, ‘What does the band mean? What do I want to keep about what we’ve been doing? And who am I?’”
After the “Another Day, Another Time” concert, Burnett helped motivate her to come up with answers.
He recalled advising her: “This is your moment right now. You’re in a unique position: You can do exactly the record you’ve always dreamed of doing. There were all these songs she came back with, songs she’s loved but that maybe didn’t fit the Chocolate Drops.”
What coalesced was Giddens’ desire to pay homage to the female musicians who influenced her, from the famous (Parton, Patsy Cline, Odetta) to some known only to roots-music aficionados.
“My whole thing is representing a point of view that sometimes doesn’t get represented,” she said. “I feel like that’s what I’m here for.”
The song that opens the album, “Last Kind Words,” was first recorded by ‘20s and ‘30s blues singer and guitarist Geeshie Wiley, and it came to the project relatively late.
“We couldn’t find a beginning track,” Giddens said. “That was kind of indicative of the fact that we hadn’t found a focus of the record yet. ... One day T Bone sent an e-mail and said, ‘What about “Last Kinds Words”?’ and I just went, that’s it!”
Said Burnett, “There are few singers of any kind that could do a believable update of ‘Last Kind Words,’ which is a very mysterious and deep incantation. A singer can’t sing that; you have to conjure that.”
That leads him to talk about Giddens’ place in the pop music world.
“It seems to me that all bets are off now,” he said with a laugh. “We have had performers who’ve been able to take the music of this country all the way around the world several times, from Louis Armstrong to Bob Dylan to Johnny Cash.
“I believe she’s one of those people that can take this strange music that’s grown out of this convergence of cultures and take it back around the world,” he said.
“I figure that’s just what she’ll do.”