When I heard Rhiannon’s version of She’s Got You at the Grand Ole Opry, I cried. Rhiannon has become a sort of performing time capsule whose music is entirely unclassifiable. She boosted her career by playing an angel in the weird series of Nashville, before which Bob Harris had already latched onto her as a performer both as a solo act and in the bluegrass group Carolina Chocolate Drops, whom he played as far back as 2008 and had in for a session in 2010.
Rhiannon now lives in Ireland when she isn’t on tour. She is signed to Nonesuch Records, whose roster includes Yola, Rodney Crowell, Fleet Foxes, Iron & Wine, kd lang, Nickel Creek and Joni Mitchell, whose music is all as unclassifiable as Rhiannon’s.
They’re Calling Me Home is her second album with her partner Francesco Turrisi and the first since she was awarded an honorary PhD from UNC-Greensboro thanks to her work foregrounding black folk music around the turn of the century; she’s now the Artistic Director of Silkroad, having been a guest curator of the Cambridge Folk Festival. Rhiannon was also profiled in the Daily Telegraph who on their website used the headline: ‘I knew everyone who was black and played the banjo.’ The interviewer said she was ‘the closest thing country music has to a conscience’.
Thus we get music from around the world that would be classified ‘folk’ as well as country, like the pentatonic melody of Avalon, a very old song which she wrote that has been dusted off and brought to record. Francesco picks up the banjo, an unfamiliar instrument, for Si Dolce e’I Tormento, an Italian song from the 1600s which Rhiannon sings with a great deal of control. She adds a hillbilly quaver and a bluesy wail to Oh Death, which you might remember from O Brother Where Art Thou.
Black As Crow has a superlative wind solo from what sounds like a reed flute, which returns on Bully For You (good title) while instrumental piece Niwel Goes To Town and a cappella duet Nenna Nenna are both gorgeous. It’s more World on 3 than Bob Harris Country but it proves my point that Rhiannon is in her own genre.
Along with trad. arr. masterpieces like When I Was In My Prime (‘I flourished like a vine’), I Shall Not Be Moved and Amazing Grace – whose melody she hums over finger-tapped percussion and, for the final verse, alongside a piper – there’s Calling Me Home, a song about ascending to heaven and contemplating mortality. I also love the gentle grooves of Waterbound, with an arrangement matching the lyric of a passage to North Carolina. We need more Rhiannons and Francescos making their own kind of music.