Freedom Highway, Rhiannon Giddens' follow-up to her highly praised solo debut album, Tomorrow Is My Turn, includes nine original songs she wrote or co-wrote, a traditional tune, and two civil rights–era songs. She co-produced the album with multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell in his Louisiana studio, with the bulk of recording done in wooden rooms built prior to the Civil War, over an intense eight-day period. "Giddens emerges as a peerless and powerful voice in roots music," Pitchfork exclaims. It's a "rich collection," says NPR; "hope comes back to life in Giddens' music."
"Know thy history. Let it horrify you; let it inspire you. Let it show you how the future can look, for nothing in this world has not come around before. These songs are based on slave narratives from the 1800s, African American experiences of the last century, and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and headlines from streets of Ferguson and Baltimore today. Voices demanding to be heard, to impart the hard-earned wisdom of a tangled, difficult, complicated history; we just try to open the door and let them through." —Rhiannon Giddens
Freedom Highway, Grammy Award–winner and 2017 Grammy nominee Rhiannon Giddens' follow-up to her highly praised debut album Tomorrow Is My Turn, was released by Nonesuch Records on February 24, 2017. The record includes nine original songs Giddens wrote or co-wrote while she and her band toured after Tomorrow Is My Turn's 2015 release, along with a traditional song and two civil rights-era songs, "Birmingham Sunday" and Staple Singers' well-known "Freedom Highway," from which the album takes its name.
Giddens' writing for Freedom Highway is a departure from Tomorrow Is My Turn, which included one original song, with the rest being her interpretations of songs written or performed by a wide variety of female musicians. Giddens co-produced Freedom Highway with multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell in his Breaux Bridge, Louisiana studio, with the bulk of recording done in wooden rooms built prior to the Civil War. As producers, Giddens and Powell sought to release the stories already in the walls, allowing the space to be a voice in itself. This approach allowed for an emotional fearlessness and presence not always easy to achieve in the studio. Together they assembled the players, which included her superb touring band, local musicians from the bayou, a soulful horn section from New York, and talented family members. The principle recording was done over an intense eight day period. The result is an album that is rawer and more personal than its predecessor.
Giddens wrote of the title track:
"I am a daughter of the South; of the white working class, of the black working class; of the Democrat, and the Republican; of the gay, and the straight; and I can tell you one thing—we are far more alike than we are different. We cannot let hate divide us; we cannot let ignorance diminish us; we cannot let those whose greed fills their every waking hour take our country from us. They can't take U.S. from US—unless we let them. I recorded this with Bhi Bhiman, all-American singer-songwriter from St. Louis, whose parents are from Sri Lanka. America's strength are her people, whether they came 4,000, 400, or 40 years ago, and we can't leave anyone behind. Let's walk down Freedom Highway together. Written by Pops Staples in 1965."
Rhiannon Giddens, who had previously won accolades and a Grammy Award as a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, made her solo debut with Tomorrow Is My Turn, which was one of 2015's most highly praised albums; the New York Times said, "her voice is a perpetually soulful marvel," NPR said, Giddens "puts her own breathtaking mark on songs by Patsy Cline, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Nina Simone, and others," and London's Guardian called it a "solo debut of phenomenal vocal power, effortlessly jumping between gospel holler, tender folk song, and lachrymose country ballad." The album was Grammy nominated, and Giddens received the BBC Radio 2 Folk Award for Singer of the Year. Earlier this year she won the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Bluegrass and Banjo.
Since that album's release, Giddens has performed on The Late Show, Austin City Limits, Later…with Jools Holland, and both CBS Saturday and Sunday Morning, among numerous other notable media appearances. She performed for President Obama and the First Lady on a White House Tribute to Gospel, along with Aretha Franklin and Emmylou Harris; the program was televised on PBS. Giddens duets with country superstar Eric Church on his powerful anti-racism song "Kill a Word," which is currently top 15 on country radio; the two have performed the song on The Tonight Show and the CMA Awards, among other programs. Giddens, who studied opera at Oberlin, makes her acting debut with a recurring role on the recently revived television drama Nashville, which debuts on CMT in January, playing the role of Hanna Lee "Hallie" Jordan, a young social worker with "the voice of an angel"; CMT will air the first hour of the show's two-hour premiere on December 15.
Produced by Rhiannon Giddens and Dirk Powell
Engineered by Dirk Powell at The Cypress House, Breaux Bride, LA
Horn arrangements engineered by Nolan Thies at Bunker Studios, Brooklyn, NY
Spoken Word for “Better Get it Right the First Time” engineered by Gino Abel Terry at Sessions Studio, Greensboro, NC
B3 Hammond recorded by Eric Adcock in Lafayette, LA
Mixed by Dirk Powell and Rhiannon Giddens at The Cypress House
Mastered by Robert C. Ludwig at Gateway Mastering Studios, Portland, ME
Design by Jeri Heiden for SMOG Design, Inc.
Photography by John Peets
Slavery sale notice courtesy Hudson River Valley Heritage/Historic Huguenot Street
Executive Producer: David Bither
Rhiannon Giddens, vocals (1–10, 12), minstrel banjo (1, 3, 5, 7, 8, 10, 11), choir (4), harmony vocals (5), handclaps (12)
Malcolm Parson, cello (1, 8)
Hubby Jenkins, mandolin (1, 12), choir (4), banjo (8)
Dirk Powell, electric guitar (1, 4–6, 8), mandolin (1), bells (1), acoustic guitar (2, 6), fiddle (3), piano (4, 9), choir (4), harmony vocals (6), guitar (9), electric bass (12)
Jason Sypher, bass (1, 3–5, 7–10), choir (4)
Jamie Dick, drums (1, 4, 5, 7–12), percussion (4, 9–12), choir (4)
Eric Adcock, B3 Hammond (4, 12), wurlitzer (12)
Rowan Corbett, choir (4), harmony vocals (8), bones (11)
Lalenja Harrington, choir (4), harmony vocals (6), vocals (10)
Amelia & Sophie Powell, choir (4), handclaps (12)
Ina Powell, handclaps (12)
Justin Harrington, spoken word (5)
Alphonso Horne, trumpet (5, 7, 9, 12)
Corey Wilcox, trombone (5, 12)
Patrick Bartley, tenor saxophone (5, 12)
Desireé Champagne, rubboard (5, 7)
Leyla McCalla, vocals & cello (10)
Bhi Bhiman, vocals & electric guitar (12)