Rhiannon Giddens is more than the banjo player in a Beyonce song. Here’s why the NC-raised musician is so special.

Rhiannon Giddens performs in 2018 during the FreshGrass Music Festival in Massachusetts. The NC-born artist was re-introduced to a wider audience this month in a new Beyonce song. (Photo by Douglas Mason/Getty Images)

By Billy Ball

February 22, 2024

The Grammy-winning, Greensboro-born musician was re-introduced to a wider audience in Beyonce’s new country song. But her two decades of recorded output show her to have played a big part in expanding our view of roots and traditional music.

The first time many people heard of Rhiannon Giddens, she was turning the R&B song “Hit ‘Em Up Style” into an old-timey song with her group, the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Now she’s being introduced (or re-introduced) to many as the banjo plucker in Beyonce’s hit, “Texas Hold ‘Em.” 

There’s so much more to know about her.

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The Greensboro singer and multi-instrumentalist has been making good folk music for two decades. Along the way, she’s let some air in on a sometimes claustrophobic genre. 

How many know her because of a video game? A tv show? Or even an opera? (Giddens co-wrote a 2022 Pulitzer Prize-winning opera that depicted the life of Omar ibn Said, an enslaved man in Fayetteville, N.C., who authored a historic 1831 memoir.) 

She’s also helped to start a more inclusive conversation about the roots of folk, country, and “old-time” music. Many of us were raised to think of these genres as white—neglecting the contributions of Black and Native artists.

Perhaps it’s because roots and bluegrass music are things that North Carolinians take pride in—but it’s uncomfortable to boast about an art form forged by people our state enslaved. There is no banjo for NC bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs to revolutionize without the enslaved people who brought an early version of it with them from West Africa.

Giddens—who reportedly is descended from African, Native, and European people—is an apt messenger for a bigger, broader folk revival. 

If anything, she’s made great music. And inspired people to dig a little deeper into the things we like—not out of an obsession with the past, but because knowing who you are and where you come from has a lot to do with where you are.

Giddens’ catalog is worth a deep dive. But if you’re looking for a shortcut, here’s a start:

“Snowden’s Jig”

From the 2010 album “Genuine Negro Jig” by the Carolina Chocolate Drops

“Cliff’s Dog”

From the 2009 album “All the Pretty Horses” with The Elftones


From the 2017 album “Freedom Highway”

“We Could Fly”

From the 2017 album “Freedom Highway”

“Julie’s Aria”

From the 2022 opera “Omar” with with Bill Frisell and Francesco Turrisi

“You’re the One”

From the 2023 album “You’re the One”


  • Billy Ball

    Billy Ball is Cardinal & Pine's senior community editor. He’s covered local, state and national politics, government, education, criminal justice, the environment and immigration in North Carolina for almost two decades, winning state, regional and national awards for his reporting and commentary.


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