Rhiannon Giddens was named earlier this month as one of 24 recipients of 2017 MacArthur Foundation Fellowships, also known as a “genius grants,” awarded annually to “individuals who show exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future.”

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awards unrestricted grants of $625,000, distributed over five years and designed to enable recipients to pursue their work free from financial pressures. Giddens was recognized for “reclaiming African-American contributions to folk and country music and bringing to light new connections between music from the past and the present.”

Rhiannon Giddens

Rhiannon Giddens

The 40 year-old Greensboro, North Carolina native — who currently divides her time between her home state, Limerick, Ireland and Nashville, when not on tour — is a founding member of the Grammy Award-winning string band Carolina Chocolate Drops and the recipient of the 2016 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. A singer-songwriter, powerhouse vocalist, and fretless banjo and fiddle player, she released her second solo album, Freedom Highway, in February. Like her 2015 debut, the T-Bone Burnett-produced and Grammy-nominated Tomorrow is My Turn, the new CD has received much critical acclaim.

Giddens studied opera at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio before returning home, immersing herself in the rural traditions of North Carolina’s Piedmont region, and pursuing her current musical path — which has also seen her delving into elements of Americana, blues, gospel, jazz, and soul.

She launched the Carolina Chocolate Drops with former bandmates Justin Robinson and Dom Flemons following a chance meeting at the 2005 Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, NC. The group, 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 Carolina 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.

A North Carolina Music Hall of Fame inductee, Giddens has also dueted with country music star Eric Church on his Grammy-nominated anti-racist song “Kill A Word” and has had a recurring role as a social worker with the voice of an angel on the CMT television series Nashville.