Beyoncé’s Latest Single Features a MacArthur ‘Genius’ Banjo Player
Rhiannon Giddens has proudly declared herself our #banjoauntie. How lucky are we?Photo: Shutterstock
As anticipated, Sunday night’s Super Bowl was an overstimulating American capitalist fever dream where the jock and cheerleader got their happy ending, ads pushed the advent of AI, Usher provided a sonic medley of nostalgia kernels atop impeccable dance moves, and Beyoncé announced a new album via a not-funny Verizon commercial.
Admittedly, I did not initially clock the album announcement hidden in the ad, and even when Twitter confirmed the gimmick about 30 minutes later, I wasn’t particularly excited. Despite being a Beyoncé fan (though, not a part of the Beyhive), the surprise album announcement at a televised event move du jour (see: Taylor Swift’s Tortured Poets Department announcement at the Grammys) has been giving me pop culture whiplash. That is until I learned that Rhiannon Giddens —American folk music genius —was the featured banjo and viola player on “Texas Hold ‘Em,” the first single that dropped Sunday night. I love Rhiannon Giddens and so does Beyoncé and you should, too.
“You didn’t know you needed a #banjoauntie. Now you know,” Giddens tweeted Monday morning. For those who felt a swell of groove and joy within them upon hearing Gidden’s bravura plucking in the intro of the song—welcome. Where to start? Giddens is—as she shows off in this song—a banjo and fiddle player whose country and folk music have not only earned her a Grammy for Best Folk Album and the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass but have also informed her accomplished anthropological work on reclaiming and contextualizing the banjo’s origin in Black American and African tradition. In 2017, Giddens was awarded the MacArthur “Genius” Grant for her work.
I first became familiar with Giddens through Carolina Chocolate Drops, an old-time string band composed of Black musicians that formed in 2005. Their 2010 album “Genuine Negro Jig” was what transformed my appreciation for old-timey roots music from listening to almost entirely white recordings to understanding the genesis of this music in the African tradition. Relatedly, Giddens often explains in her performances and interviews how Black roots musicians were systemically excluded from country and folk music recordings, which effectively allowed American country music to be viewed as a white American genre. “The idea of what country music is has been carefully constructed to seem like it was always white,” Giddens said in a 2020 Rolling Stone article. Giddens’ lifework has been to tell the stories, through music and more, of those excluded from that construction.
Along with Carolina Chocolate Drops and her stunning, more genre-bending solo albums, Giddens also records with Our Native Daughters, a Black women banjo player supergroup with Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell. They released their debut album Songs of Our Native Daughters in 2019 and it’s been on regular listening rotation ever since. My favorites off that album are “I Knew I Could Fly” and “Black Myself.” “Polly Ann’s Hammer” kicks off with quintessential Bluegrass fiddle and tells the story of John Henry’s wife, Polly Ann—a retelling of an American classic through a different (though not new) lens, not unlike what the musical group accomplishes. For those eager to dive into Gidden’s solo work, I love “Hey BéBé” from 2017’s Freedom Highway, which is an upbeat tune with a swampy zydeco flourish.
Beyoncé’s foray into country music might be surprising to some. Of course, everyone who remembers Lemonade’s “Daddy Lessons” knows she has it in her. But more importantly, those of us who’ve learned from and loved Rhiannon Giddens’ music are aware that Black country music artistry is far from new or surprising. And the fact that such a large audience just gained a #BangoAuntie only furthers Giddens’ brilliant work. Yee-frickin’-haw.