Rhiannon Giddens' new album traces the darker moments in American history 

Cry Freedom

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Dan Winters

Some artists spend the day their new album is released talking to the press or debuting a new video or kicking off a huge tour. Singer and banjo player, Rhiannon Giddens, formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, spent the day that her new album Freedom Highway came out at Sing Sing Prison in New York, playing a show and participating in a songwriting workshop with some of the prisoners. And in a way, that was the most fitting thing she could've done to support this particular album, even if it was more coincidental than marketing savvy.

"I was struck by the color of the prison population, which was 99 percent brown," Giddens says. "That affected me deeply. They'd invited me to bring my show to Sing Sing and I said 'Hell yeah,' and it just ended up that being the release day, and that's the only promotional thing we did that day. We went in there and just gave it all, and the guys were pretty appreciative. It was pretty impactful. We had a workshop where we did one of the prisoner's songs, it was like, 'Wow, what a way to start the tour.' It really reminds you of what's important and how lucky we are and what we're here to do."

Freedom Highway is a stunning collection of songs that deserved a dramatic launch. The tracks are bathed in an autumnal, back-porch kind of glow, with largely acoustic instrumentation and Giddens' powerful, immediate vocals taking center stage over the guitars, mandolins, and muted percussion. It's also something of a sobering look into the dark side of America's history, delving into the abuses and brutality of America's long conflict between black and white, rich and poor.

To some, it might sound like an album inspired by last year's bitter, divisive election, but in truth, the nine songs that the Grammy-winning Giddens wrote for the album were largely created during the tour for her 2015 debut, Tomorrow Is My Turn.

"It's really about the last 500 years, not the last five years," she says. "The subject matter is kind of eternal when it comes to this country. It's really funny because the election was unfortunately a response to things that have been going on in America for a long time, and that's what this album is about: It's about the stuff that's been there for a long time but is being uncovered right now. None of this is new."

Giddens worked with the acclaimed producer T-Bone Burnett on her first album, but this time out she formed a production partnership with multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell (Eric Clapton, Loretta Lynn).

"T-Bone was amazing to work with," she says. "He was fantastic. I love that album and he changed my life. But the way it was going with the second record, I knew there was going to be a lot of original material, and I just wanted to be more hands-on, so I wanted to work with somebody who was going to be more of a partner. I didn't know what it was going to be, but when I was talking to Dirk, he was telling me about his studio (The Cypress House near Beaux Bridge, La.) and it just kind of felt right to me. With this kind of career, you really have to follow your gut, and with this one it said, 'This is the direction to go in.'"

Their partnership allowed Giddens to worry about the message and sound of her songs while Powell took care of the more technical details. "That's why it's nice to be in a partnership, because it doesn't have to be just you," she says. "There's a big measure of trust that has to happen, and that's what Dirk and I have in our working relationship. So when it comes down to it, I ask him if that's the right vocal, and if he says, 'Yes,' I'm not worried about it because we both want the best thing. It just really worked out because I got a lot of input but I didn't have to be the last call. I could trust that this person had my back."

Despite the finesse in her singing and the raw lyrical power in her originals, the most striking songs on Giddens' album are covers. In fact, the centerpiece of Freedom Highway might just be the powerhouse, gospel-soaked version of "Birmingham Highway," a song written in the early 1960s by folk singer Richard Farina about the bombing of a Birmingham, Ala. church that killed four young girls.

"That was Dirk's suggestion," she says. "Dirk had played with Joan Baez for about eight years, and he'd been talking about their trip to Birmingham and how incredibly poignant that was. The way that song was written, the way it names each girl, it puts you right there. I think it's really important to put people in that moment. These were not nameless people. That's what a song can do in three minutes, and it's still sadly very current."

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