Our Top 10 Rhiannon Giddens Songs list presents the best Rhiannon Giddens songs like “Kill a Word,” “Julie,” “Cruel World” and many more. Fans of the Carolina Chocolate Drops would be familiar with its founding member and lead singer, Rhiannon Giddens. In addition to serving as the band’s frontwoman, she also played the banjo and the fiddle before releasing the first of her two solo albums, Tomorrow Is My Turn in 2015. Her second, Freedom Highway, was released in 2017. She also has two collaborative albums to her credit, 2019’s There Is No Other and 2021’s They’re Calling Me Home. These were recordings she teamed with Francesco Turrisi, a multi-talented instrumentalist from Italy.
Born in 1977 and raised in North Carolina, Giddens was one of two daughters raised by parents who first met each other as college students. Like Rhiannon Giddens, her sister, Lalenja Harrington, also embarked on a music career, becoming a singer and songwriter who has often collaborated with Giddens in her recordings. Before Carolina Chocolate Drops, Giddens competed in music competitions that put her banjo playing talent to the test, starting in 2005. At the same time, she was also performing at local contra dances that saw her become involved with a band called Gaelwynd, as well as Sankofa Strings. Before 2005 was over, these bands released studio recordings which ultimately led to Giddens putting together the band, Carolina Chocolate Drops.
As a Collaborator
While with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Giddens also collaborated with other artists with their recording work, including Talitha MacKenzie’s Indian Summer in 2007 and as the second half to Cheryse McLeod Lewis’ Eleganza duo in 2009 when they recorded the album, Because I Knew You… Before the year 2013 was over, Giddens remained the only original member left of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and it would be at this point she began to pursue her musical career as a solo artist. This didn’t mean she ceased doing collaborative as she recorded Lost on the River, The New Basement Tapes in 2014 with Elvis Costello, Taylor Goldsmith, Jim James, and Marcus Mumford. The music featured the compilation work of Bob Dylan.
As a Soloist
The first album released by Rhiannon Giddens featured a number of songs she covered with a quality level that won a lot of positive reviews from fans and critics alike at a worldwide level. For Giddens, much of her musical direction was inspired by real-life events that not only affected her directly but as a response to various events that either became headline news or revolved around sensitive issues. This world-class talent has appeared in a number of festivals that covered several genres, including bluegrass, folk, and jazz. What this has done is simply demonstrate Rhiannon Giddens didn’t narrow her musical talent to just a genre or two. She brilliantly performed in multiple that also saw some country, gospel, and rock, just to name a few more.
In 2011, Rhiannon Giddens earned her first Grammy Award in the category of Best Traditional Folk Album with Genuine Negro Jig, an album she recorded while the Carolina Chocolate Drops were still together as a band. When Giddens went solo, her 2015 album, Tomorrow Is My Turn, won Album of the Year at the 2016 International Folk Music Awards, followed by 2018’s award in the same category with the same awards ceremony with 2017’s Freedom Highway. In 2022, Giddens won her second Grammy Award, this time for Best Folk Album, with 2021’s They’re Calling Me Home, a collaborated album she recorded with Italian instrumentalist, Francesco Turrisi.
While with Carolina Chocolate Drops, there were a total of six studio albums and an extended play (EP) recorded and released between 2006 and 2012. As a solo artist, she has two studio albums to her credit, along with two EPs, and two live albums. The majority of the recordings by Rhiannon Giddens have been collaborative work among a number of artists in different musical genres. This multi-talented, award-winning gem of the entertainment industry is certainly more than deserving to be called one of the greatest singing talents of all time.
Top 10 Rhiannon Giddens Songs
#10 – Hit ‘Em Up Style (Oops!) (featuring Carolina Chocolate Drops)
Before going solo, Rhiannon Giddens covered Blu Cantrell’s original single, “Hit ‘Em Up Style.” Featured on the 2010 album, Genuine Negro Jig, it was one of many tracks that played an instrumental role in the Grammy Award win it earned as the best folk album in 2011. Inspired by Bing Crosby’s “Boys’ Night Out,” “Hit ‘Em Up Style” served as a lyrical tale of a woman seeking revenge against her unfaithful man by targeting his assets and prized possessions.
In the song, it encouraged other women to do the same. For Cantrell, this was an R&B hit single that topped the US Billboard Mainstream Rock chart after it was released in 2001, as well as the singles chart belonging to the nation of Australia. For Giddens and her group, Carolina Chocolate Drops, this was turned into a folk music work of genius that deservedly won over critical acclaim and fan appreciation.
#9 – Ballad of Lennon Lacy (featuring North Carolina Love Army)
The powerful “Ballad of Lennon Lacy” was a song Rhiannon Giddens put together that featured the black teen whose unresolved murder saw his body hung for witnesses to see from a swing set of a mobile home community. The case of this mystery is still under investigation by the FBI. For Giddens, since Lacy was also a North Carolina-born and raised resident, this tragic tale hit close enough to home where she opted to pay homage to a person’s life who was cut short by what is suspected to be an act of lynching. The “Ballad of Lennon Lacy” came out in 2015 as an emotional number on August 21, 2015, which was nearly one full year after Lacy’s body was found on August 29, 2014.
#8 – Waterboy
“Waterboy” is a traditional American folk song that originally began as a jazz number during the 1920s when Avery Robinson first made it popular as “Water Boy.” Since 1949, “Waterboy” has been covered among other music genres such as blues and folk. For Rhiannon Giddens, her performance brought forth “Waterboy” as a magical folk number that could easily cause new fans to believe this song was her own. This was one of many songs Giddens covered on her debut album as a solo artist, Tomorrow Is My Turn. Giddens was intensely powerful with her lyrics, as were the beats that added more drama to song as it then eases into a jazzy number, understandably making it a fan favorite.
#7 – Moonlight
For the popular video game, Red Dead Redemption 2, Rhiannon Giddens recorded three songs that are not only in the game but on its soundtrack. “Moonlight” was among the three that came out in 2019 as Giddens brought forth a bluesy performance that depicted the aura of the American wild west, especially at night. She, along with her banjo, played an instrumental role in the multitude of nominations, along with a few wins, as one of Rockstar Games’ most successful games to date. This was a combined performance that featured a number of vocalists but the standout was Rhiannon Giddens as she demonstrated why she has earned her rightful place as a world-class talent.
#6 – Mountain Hymn
As a video game produced by Rockstar Games, 2018’s Red Dead Redemption 2 featured the song, “Mountain Hymn,” which was beautifully performed by Rhiannon Giddens as a somewhat haunting addition to this popular game that won several awards in the gaming industry and still has a loyal fan following that continues to play it this day. Giddens is absolutely stellar with what beautifully laid out the feel of a lonely outlaw trekking through the rugged territory of the wild west and its mix of plains and mountain scenery.
#5 – Pretty Saro
In 2017, the coverage of the English folk ballad, “Pretty Saro” featured Rhiannon Giddens at what many will describe as her lyrical best as she performed for the documentary film, The American Epic Sessions. The film and the soundtrack earned a series of awards and accolades that also gave credit to Giddens and a song that fans and critics felt was an incredibly intense piece of music for the soul.
Originally as a 1700s British folk ballad, “Pretty Saro” was brought back to life in North America during the early 1900s that quickly became a folk revival favorite, thanks to Cecil Sharp’s performance that gave more than enough inspiration to Giddens to present her own version of “Pretty Saro” and make it a modernized favorite. For Giddens, “Pretty Saro” was her way of sharing her views of the nation’s immigration issues and how much of the history has either been drowned out for social reasons that would rather see history buried instead of learning from it.
#4 – Just the Two of Us (featuring Sxip Shirey)
In 2020, Rhiannon Giddens performed “Just the Two of Us” with Sxip Shirey which saw its proceeds go to the Global Giving’s Coronavirus Relief Fund. The COVID-19 pandemic placed mankind in the uncomfortable position of having to socially distance themselves from each other. The inspiration behind this song came to Rhiannon Giddens and Sxip Shirey after the passing of Bill Withers and his 1981 classic, “Just the Two of Us,” as she found the virus served as a reality check that it is a far more serious issue than the variety of political, religious, and social divisions that continue to mess with the attitudes of people everywhere.
#3- Cruel World
2019’s “Cruel World” was a single Rhiannon Giddens recorded and released as a solo artist. Her version of the song came from Red Dead Redemption 2’s video game and soundtrack, which was released by Rockstar Games in 2019. This award-winning game brought forth a strong roster of music that not only made it perfect for the wild west game but as a soundtrack to simply sit and listen to that could perhaps place you as the main character.
Her rustic version of this song served as a beautiful contrast to the original soundtrack recordings, first performed by Willie Nelson, then another version by Josh Homme. For Giddens, using her 1858 replica banjo to cover “Cruel World” was a heartbreaking performance of genius. Unfortunately, her recording is not on the soundtrack nor in the game but has earned her a name among the fans of the gaming industry, as well as well-deserved critical acclaim for adding a special haunt to the tragic tale of the fictional outlaw named Arthur Morgan.
#2 – Julie
“Julie” came from the second studio album recording made by Rhiannon Giddens, Freedom Highway. Since its release, it has become one of her signature songs as she lyrically shares the tale of a slave named “Julie” as she endures the events of the American Civil War, including a confrontation she had with the family who begged her to protect their wealth. In response, “Julie” informs them that gold came from her own children, whom her slave masters sold. For Giddens, this was one of many songs from the album that saw the desire to share actual accounts of America’s history that has seen recent events wanting to sweep stories under the rug. The story of “Julie” served as a great history lesson in the form of music among listeners who may or may not know a thing or two about some of the nation’s trials and triumphs during that era.
#1 – Kill a Word (featuring Eric Church)
In 2017, the duet “Kill a Word” performed by the combined talent of Eric Church and Rhiannon Giddens earned the duo a nomination for Musical Event of the Year by the Country Music Association Awards. Although the win went to Willie Nelson and Glen Campbell for their performance of “Funny How Time Slips Away,” the song was still impressionable enough to become a big favorite among the fans who enjoyed this country-style favorite.
For Giddens, this song served her ability to be able to deliver a favorite song in more than just one or two musical genres. The collaborated “Kill a Word” revolved around the sensitivities of negative words that are known to hurt more than a physical weapon designed to do harm. After the song was released in 2015, it became a number nine hit on the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and a number five hit on the RPM Canadian Country Tracks chart. It has also since become a certified platinum seller with the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) after reaching one million copies sold.
Top 10 Rhiannon Giddens Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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