GREENSBORO — Themes in filmmaker Ken Burns’ new documentary about country music resonate in the career and work of Rhiannon Giddens.
The documentary illustrates how country music doesn’t represent just one style of music but many.
It shows how African Americans and women played major roles in its roots.
“He’s trying to tell a more complete story,” said Giddens, a Greensboro native and Grammy-winning singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist with an international career.
Giddens helps Burns tell that story.
She was among more than 100 people interviewed for the eight-part film, ”Country Music,” which will begin airing Sept. 15 on PBS stations.
“The people who built this country, that’s where country and blues come from,” Giddens says in a trailer for the documentary.
Giddens spoke recently from Louisiana, where she is working on a project yet to be announced.
After Burns expressed interest in interviewing her, Giddens said, she filmed her part about two or three years ago while on tour.
Born to an African American mother and a white father, Giddens, 42, has become known for exploring African American history for her music.
She plays banjo and fiddle among other instruments. The modern banjo, she has noted, draws from the African instrument known as the akonting, which is made from a gourd. Early in its existence, the American banjo was known as a black instrument.
She recorded with the African American string band Carolina Chocolate Drops before going solo. Its album, “Genuine Negro Jig,” won a 2011 Grammy Award for best traditional folk album. She won a 2017 “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation and the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass.
“One of the main pillars of country music was the string band tradition,” she said. “That string band was at the heart of American music for a very long time.
“Before you had radio, you needed live music, and that live music was, more often than not, a string band,” she continued. “And a lot of times, that string band was African American.”
Giddens’ music draws connections among and blurs lines between several genres. In addition to old-time and African American string band music, she has written and performed folk, roots, bluegrass, blues, R&B, Celtic and Americana music.
Trained in opera, she has been commissioned to write an opera about Omar Ibn Said, an enslaved Muslim African man brought to Charleston, S.C. in 1807. It is scheduled to have its premiere at Charleston’s Spoleto Festival USA in 2020.
“I deal a lot in the era before genres were really so much a thing,” she said. “I’m very into how strong that has made American music, and how problematic it is when people like to assign different qualities to different genres.”
“What we think of as country now, 30 years ago wouldn’t have been thought of as country,” she said. “What was, 30 or 50 years ago, thought of as country would be put in another category now.”
Her music intersects with country, she said.
“I have played country,” she said. “I’ve sung country. I’ve listened to country, or what we say is country. I’ve played a lot of music that funneled into what became country. I play music that country has been borrowed from.”
“But it’s just a strand of what I do,” she added. “You can’t box the music that I do. People ask me all the time, ‘What do you play?’ Well, I play American music. That includes what we would call country.”
Every episode in his documentary, Burns says in a trailer for the film, “is always about strong and extraordinarily talented women.”
Giddens’ style and songs fit that tradition. Her songs have drawn on slave narratives, African American experiences and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. They’re often about black women’s suffering and resilience.
Similar themes about strong women and resilience run through country music.
“My first obsession with country music was in the ‘90s,” Giddens says in the documentary preview. “It was Reba (McEntire) and Mary Chapin Carpenter and Kathy Mattea. I love strong women telling stories. And I think in country music, especially at that time, if you want to look for super strong women telling really amazing stories, you went to country.”
It introduced her to the women in the Carter family and the songwriting of Dolly Parton.
In February, Giddens released the album “Songs of Our Native Daughters” with Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell and Amythyst Kiah. Giddens spent part of the year on tour with them, all women of color who play banjo.
Another honor soon will come her way.
She and the late Frank Johnson, the leader of a 19th-century black brass band, will be the recipients of the inaugural Legacy of Americana Award.
It will be presented Sept. 11 during the Americana Honors & Awards show in Nashville, Tenn.
Four days later, “Country Music” will premiere.
Giddens said she appreciates that Burns saw the need to highlight the role of African Americans in creating country music.
“Now more than ever, it’s important to know that our cultures have always been mixed, and they have always been affecting each other,” she said.
“We need that reminder that we are much stronger together than we are, put in little boxes. I hope that it moves the needle on that front.”