Before crossing the Atlantic to make a new life in Ireland, Rhiannon Giddens associated ‘Limerick’ with comic verse. A decade on, the proud resident of Castletroy has an altogether different perspective.When I met my ex, he was from Limerick. I had never really thought about the fact Limerick is a place, says the critically-acclaimed singer, actress and a recipient in 2017 of a prestigious $625,000 MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant. It was only after we connected and had kids, that I developed a strong connection. Giddens has lived in the city for most of the past 10 years, though she and musician Michael Laffan split in 2018. But her career as vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and champion of ‘Old Time’ American music has taken around the world (somehow she also managed to fit in a recurring part on hit US drama Nashville). She estimates that until last year her various projects took her back to America at least once a month.
And then the pandemic happened and the world shuddered to a standstill. In Ireland with her children and her new partner, Sicilian musician Francesco Turrisi, she started to think afresh about the concept of home and belonging. 
Where did her heart reside? In Greensboro, North Carolina where she was born in 1977? In Limerick, with daughter Aoife (11) and son Caoimhín (seven). Or on the road, where she has spent so many years?
Those are the questions she and Turrisi wrestle with on their extraordinary new record, Theyre Calling Me Home. Bone-bare yet rippling with emotion, the LP features stunning interpretations of Calling Me Home by bluegrass singer Alice Gerrard and old traditional American lament O, Death.
Goosebumps are likewise triggered by the original composition, Avalon. Here ‘home’ is the afterlife, where he narrator is reunited with dead love-ones. In the video Giddens dances on beach in Ireland, gazing out at the sea that separate her from America. Watching you might find yourself wiping away a tear or three.
We moved here and made our homes here, says Giddens over Zoom, musical and romantic partner Turrisi, at her side and chiming in occasionally. Our kids go to school here. Ive been going back and forth to Ireland for many years. But knowing you can go any time brings a very different feeling to it. Not being able to go it really brought it home.
For me, it was about thinking about the differences between being an expat and an immigrant and a refugee. And all the layers of privilege that get wrapped up in that. You realise how much of a privilege it is to be able to hop on a plane and fly across the ocean. And you think of the people that used to emigrate and never saw their home again, never saw their families again.
 She feels blessed to live in Limerick. And like all proud citizens of the city is an ardent defender of its reputation.
I would meet Irish people out in the world. And I would be like, oh I live in Ireland Oh where? And Id say Limerick. Nine times out of ten they would laugh. And it was so annoying to me. Because a lot of the time they were from Dublin. Id be like, it [Limerick] is a really nice place what are you talking about? I never understood. 
She has been keeping track of recent controversies. There was this whole thing with Forbes [which portrayed Limerick as a den of iniquity]. And I was like, Ive seen in the last 10 years so many improvements in Limerick. All the effort thats gone into the art scene. Im a champion. I do what I can. Curious though it may sound she sees parallels between Limerick and her native Greensboro, located 5,600 kilometres away among the rolling hills of North Carolinas Piedmont Plateau.
I went to Dublin. Im not a Dublin fan. Its fine. Its a fine city. It doesnt speak to me. Limerick makes more sense to me. Greensboros got a really tiny downtown and a lot of suburban belt. I feel like Limerick has this small downtown and then theres Castletroy, theres all these places around it. Its got a small-town feel thought it has some aspects of a city. Thats my experience of Greensboro. It was a logical move in a lot of ways.
Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi.
Greensboro stands at the crossroads of many different Americas. Located in the ‘Upper South’ it is one of the United States most diverse cities: its 48% white, 40% African-American and 4% Asian American.
And it has a fraught history. The city was a focus point for the Civil Rights movement. The downtown Woolworths where four African-American college students staged a 1960 sit-in after being denied service at the lunch counter is today the International Civil Rights Centre and Museum.
But in 1979 it was the scene of the Greensboro Massacre, in which socialist protesters were attacked by the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis, resulting in five deaths. And, given its past, the city was naturally a focal point for Black Lives Matter protests over the summer.
It was really hard, says Giddens of watching from afar as America began to reckon with its legacy of racism. You feel so impotent. I couldnt put eyes on my family. I couldnt be on the ground helping with the protests. My kids were like, mom, why are you crying?. How do I explain this? 
Giddens and Turrisi were lucky to have made it to Ireland at all. When the pandemic hit in March 2020 they were touring Australia. Italy had already been rocked by Covid. They dropped what they were doing and tried to get on the next flight to Europe.
I was having a hard time with my Italian passport getting flagged coming back from Australia, says Turrisi. Its so interesting you know what it feels like to put your passport in the machine and it goes beep beep beep? ‘Go see a representative of the police’. Everything was closing down. Its a long way to come. You get off from the plane and you dont know whats happened in those 12 or 14 hours. 
 For Giddens the new album represents merely the latest chapter in a long and fascinating journey. She was born to hippy-ish parents who named her after the Welsh goddess (rather than the Fleetwood Mac song). Graduation from North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics was followed by admission to the prestigious conservatory of music at Oberlin College in Ohio.
Her ambition had been to become a classical singer but grew disillusioned. Back in Greensboro, she co-founded the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an old timey trio formed with the explicit purpose of highlighting the African-American origins of string-band and bluegrass music.
The genre had been made globally popular by the 2001 Coen Brothers movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, its iconic soundtrack assembled by producer T Bone Burnett. Unfortunately, the artists featured were almost exclusively white. O Brother thus continued the long tradition of the erasure of African-Americans from the cultural and societal history of the United States.
The Chocolate Drops came out all three of us discovering that the banjo was an African-American instrument, says Giddens, who received a Grammy with her work in the ensemble.
There was this whole history of African American music that had been completely obscured and erased. We all heard O Brother like everyone else. And were really inspired by it. T Bones no dummy he knew a lot of this stuff. But he still fell down the same hole as everyone else. It was kind of a missed opportunity. The Chocolate Drops was definitely an attempt to try and right the record a little bit. 
One sign of how embedded Giddens has become in Limerick is that her kids attend a local Gaelscoil. As a non-Irish speaker, has this presented challenges?
The catalyst for it was actually me, she says . When I met my ex and we started to talk about having kids I said, look I dont know what any of my ancestors spoke you do. Hes a bit of a Gaeilgeoir. I think its fabulous. I can already hear my daughter has an ear for other languages. The only problem with the gaelscoil is that its not really diverse. It tends to cater to a certain class. You know thats been the only drawback for me. I would love to see a bit more diversity. 

  • Theyre Calling Me Home by Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi is out now.