Critically acclaimed and Grammy Award-winning musician Rhiannon Giddens released her fifth album, They’re Calling me Home, in collaboration with Francesco Turrisi, on April 9th on Nonesuch records. In a small studio on a farm along the outskirts of Dublin, Ireland, Giddens and Turrisi produced the twelve-track record that longs both for the literal comfort of home and the metaphorical “calling home” of death. In the middle of a pandemic, and with songs ranging from Appalachian folk tunes and American bluegrass to Italian lullabies and traditional Celtic music, Giddens and Turrisi emotionally reveal the traditions and intimate roots that beckon each other home.
The Irish Times describes the duo as “mesmerizing.” The conservatory trained musicians balance the simple melodies of each song with stunning interpretations that breathe new life into age-old stories. Each piece reads like a book, enmeshed in its own rich history and tradition.
Giddens and Turrisi virtuosically play minstrel banjo, accordion, frame drums, viola, and cello banjo, accompanied by traditional Celtic flutist Emer Mayock on uilleann pipes and whistle flute, and Congolese guitarist Niwel Tsumbu. The nuance of instruments utilized provide an intricate depth to the music, each harmony reciting a thrilling story that compels their audience to listen.
The album begins with a touching reflection on the dual nature of home. “Calling me Home” is a bluegrass tune that contemplates death over a persistent drone, and layered strings meander underneath the melody, as Giddens croons, her voice reaching toward heaven:
I know you’ll remember me when I’m gone
Remember my stories, remember my songs
I’ll leave them on Earth, sweet traces of gold
Oh, they’re calling me home.
“Black as a Crow” also contemplates death in a traditional Celtic style with a tin whistle repeating the haunting tune.
The jubilant “Avalon” is the only new composition on the album. This Appalachian tune is made for dance, as can be seen in the music video directed by Stephanie Dufresne and Mintesinot Wolde. The frame drum, the cyclical nature of the strings, and Gidden’s hailing voice are irresistible, enticing; the mountains are calling.
“Waterbound” embodies a similar feel to “Avalon” — repetitive verses and a lulling melody call to mind the North Carolina mountains. The spiritual connection to place is a narrative woven through the album, nostalgic for a time where community and travel were once commonplace.
Jumping across the pond to southern Europe, a woeful 17th century aria by Claudio Monteverdi, “Si Dolce è’l Tormento,” and the a cappella trio performance of a family lullaby, “Nenna Nenna,” spotlight Turrisi’s Italian heritage.
The two instrumental pieces feature guest collaborators. “Niwel Goes to Town” is an enrapturing song with looping string accompaniment under Tsumbu’s sonorous guitar, and “Bully for You” features Mayock’s pastoral solos on the tin whistle, swaying to and fro from cadence to cadence.
The album closes with Gidden’s rendition of “Amazing Grace,” incorporating the bagpipe once more over a pervasive frame drum. The traditional hymn speaks to every American heart — Gidden’s wordless hum needs no lyrics. This final piece speaks to the very essence of folk music, following a well-tread path, yet vitalized anew.
Giddens is known for her work unearthing America’s musical origins, and the cultural history that has often been forgotten. When speaking about the album, she emphasizes each song as a connection to ancestors, words and stories that powerfully link generations together. More than simply wading through history, this collaboration brings together traditional melodies with the personal connection unique to Giddens and Turrisi, as well as Tsumbu and Mayock. As Giddens told Under the Radar, modern culture has traded in our “personal relationship with the divine” to an ultra-capitalistic society, one that values consumerism in a way that loses connection to our innate “creative spirit.” In this sense, we might consider the album a meditation on healing. Can listening to music be considered ritual? How is performance an emotional practice? In their simplest form, how can melodies remedy isolation and loss? In They’re Calling Me Home, Giddens and Turrisi challenge us to remember the ways in which music can render us whole once more