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Rhiannon Giddens becomes first woman of color to win Steve Martin banjo prize

Photo: Gus Stewart / Getty Images

Rhiannon Giddens, vocalist-banjoist-fiddlist of the old time music band the Carolina Chocolate Drops, has been awarded the sixth annual Steve Martin Prize For Excellence In Banjo And Bluegrass, as The New York Times reports, making her the first black woman to be honored with the distinction.

The 39-year-old $50,000 endowment recipient doesn’t appear to be fully on board with the accompanying acclaim. “I don’t want it to bring attention to me,” she told The Times in a recent interview. “I want it to bring attention to my banjo. I exist to tell the story of that thing.” Giddens says she uses her instruments and her preferred musical genre in part to draw attention to a part of American history that’s often difficult to look at, let alone talk about. “A lot of that history is very negative, definitely, but the musical history is beautiful,” she explained. “We have to talk about the negativity, but we have to enjoy the beauty of what this country, culturally, has done.”

Since the award was established in 2010, all of its recipients have been white men. Comedian-writer-musician Steve Martin, who serves on his eponymous prize’s board, acknowledged that such an exclusive list of winners is unrepresentative of the banjo’s place in music history. He told The Times that Giddens was the unanimous victor this year because she is “eminently qualified, and we want to have the banjo world and the wider world know that it is a diverse instrument with many different styles.”

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Some of that diversity of style can be heard in these two performances by Giddens. Here’s her bluesy solo rendition of her own composition, “Julie.”

And here she is performing the traditional “Cornbread And Butterbeans” with the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

Giddens also recently joined the cast of CMT’s Nashville for the country music drama’s fifth season.

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[via The New York Times]

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