Rhiannon Giddens

Rhiannon Giddens

Rhiannon Giddens has been named the recipient of the 2016 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. A North Carolina-based musician and co-founder of the Grammy Award-winning string band Carolina Chocolate Drops, Giddens, 39, is the first woman and the first African-American to win the prize in its seven-year history.

A Greensboro native, Giddens studied opera at Oberlin Conservatory before returning home and immersing herself in the rural traditions of North Carolina’s Piedmont region. A powerhouse vocalist and multi-instrumentalist (banjo and fiddle), she launched the Carolina Chocolate Drops with bandmates Justin Robinson and Dom Flemons following a chance meeting at the 2005 Black Banjo Gathering in Boone.

The Chocolate Drops, Durham, NC-based tradition bearers whose music incorporated pre-World War II country blues, early jazz, minstrel songs, southern black music from the 1920s and 30s, and folk balladry, along with old-time string-band tunes, developed a reputation for its energetic live shows punctuated with stories about the origins and history of the tunes they played. The Chocolate Drops released several albums on their own prior to signing with Nonesuch Records in 2010. That same year, they released the chart-topping album Genuine Negro Jig, which also won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Recording.

T-Bone Burnett produced Giddens’ solo debut Tomorrow Is My Turn in 2015, a Grammy-nominated album of songs exploring facets of the human condition, after initially recruiting her to perform solo during the 2013 Another Day, Another Time concert at The Town Hall in New York City. During that concert celebrating the early 1960s’ folk revival that had inspired the Coen Brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis, Giddens was widely viewed as the star of the evening. Her rendition of Odetta’s “Water Boy” reportedly “stole the show.” Giddens, who currently divides her time between North Carolina and Ireland, has also been cast in the upcoming fifth season of the television series Nashville in which she plays a social worker with the voice of an angel.

Steve martin, the acclaimed actor, author, comedian and musician, established his namesake prize in 2010 to recognize artistry and heighten awareness of talented bluegrass performers. A banjo player himself for more than four decades, Martin has toured in recent years with the Steep Canyon Rangers.

Recipients receive $50,000 cash and a specially designed bronze sculpture. The Steve Martin Charitable Foundation funds the prize, while a panel of musical luminaries that includes Martin, Alison Brown, J.D. Crowe, Bela Fleck, Alison Brown, Tony Trischka, Pete Wernick and others chooses the winner. Previous winners have included Noam Pikelny – banjoist for the Punch Brothers (2010), Sammy Shelor of the Lonesome River Band (2011), Mark Johnson (2012), Jens Kruger (2013), Eddie Adcock (2014), and Danny Barnes (2015). Like the MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” fellowships, no one can apply for the Steve Martin Prize.