Freedom Highway may be the album that followers of the Carolina Chocolate Drops have been waiting for in the fledgling solo career of Rhiannon Giddens. The second of Giddens’ solo efforts, Freedom Highway showcases her songwriting talents in a tour de force demonstrating her ability to move nimbly between roots genres from the primitive, folky jug-band and blues sounds of the Chocolate Drops to soul and even hip hop.
The tone of Freedom Highway starts out as somber yet beautiful with songs rooted in America’s painful history but gradually takes a more optimistic flavor, ending with the Staples Singers’ proud “Freedom Highway.”
Where Giddens’ 2015 album, Tomorrow Is My Turn, consisted mainly of covers, Freedom Highway includes only two – Mississippi John Hurt’s somber “The Angels Laid Him Away” and Pops Staples’ closer. Giddens’ own compositions, beginning with the grim but beautiful song about slavery, “At the Purchaser’s Option” (co-written by Joey Ryan), and including the gospel-tinged “Birmingham Sunday” (co-written by Richard Farina and Dirk Powell) about church bombings, “Come Love Come” and the instrumental “Following the North Star” all show Giddens’ song-writing talents.
Joining Giddens for the album were, among others, fellow Chocolate Drop Hubby Jenkins, producer and multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell, guitarist Bhi Bhiman, and a host of horns and backup singers.
Carolina Chocolate Drops followers have long known that Giddens is a special talent. On Genuine Negro Jig, their Grammy-award winning 2010 release, Giddens’ singing on “Hit ‘Em Up Style” was a highlight. On Leaving Eden, she belted out lead vocals on “Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?,” “Country Girl,” and “West End Blues” with the verve of a Janis Joplin. But she is not a hoarse torch singer – the crisp, clear musical quality of her voice is steady throughout her excellent solos.
But while Freedom Highway is a statement in Giddens’ solo career, we can only hope that she and the Carolina Chocolate Drops continue to come together periodically to pursue the special brand of jug-band music that captured our attention. Initially formed in 2005 after meeting at the Black Banjo Gathering at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, the Drops have that raw, old-timey flavor with multi-instrumentalists Giddens, Jenkins and Don Flemons, playing a variety of banjos, fiddles, guitars, jugs and bones. Their albums are great and their shows great fun.
About the author: Bill Wilcox is a roots music enthusiast recently relocated from the Washington, DC area to Philadelphia, PA and back again.