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Nashville’s Allison Russell Showcases Black Feminine Joy At Newport Folk Fest

Brian Lima
Newport Folk Festival

The artist-curated finale sets at Newport Folk Festival have become harbinger moments for the trajectory of modern roots music. In 2019, Brandi Carlile hosted a set that culminated in a surprise walk on by Dolly Parton and a euphoric singalong featuring the supergroup The Highwomen with Judy Collins, Amy Ray and many others. The 60-year-old festival reflected history again Sunday afternoon with Nashville’s Allison Russell in the vanguard as curator.

Russell billed it as the Once And Future Sounds: Roots and Revolution set, and what it ended up being was a celebration and showcase of Black women who’ve recently blasted to the forefront of roots/Americana, many of them based in Music City. The crowded stage included Yola, Amythyst Kiah, Joy Oladokun, Adia Victoria, Sunny War, Kyshonna, Daisha “The Rap Girl” McBride, Yasmin Williams, Kam Franklin, Celisse and poet/essayist Caroline Randall Williams. Russell gave each turns on stage over a 14-song set. And then it got really wild. Russell’s surprise guest was 68-year-old disco/soul queen Chaka Khan. She came on amid euphoria to sing “Ain’t Nobody” followed by her 1978 hit “I’m Every Woman,” which took on anthemic stature as a bouncing ensemble number.

The Sunday evening super jam was a fusion of song, artist, crowd and community that left everyone involved explosively happy and fulfilled. The set and its climax underlines just how central these women have become to a folk/Americana field that’s worked and struggled to reflect not just its debts to African American blues and spirituals but to create a new artistic milieu around that legacy. Russell said her programming was inspired by folk heroine Odetta, an iconic stylist and activist who played the first Newport Folk Fest in 1959. And in the past five years, a cast of women carrying Odetta’s legacy forward has emerged, offering a much more robust definition of diversity than we commonly throw around, because these artists come from such varied places and inspirations.

Amythyst Kiah is an East Tennessee native who discovered American folk from a collegiate program and who marched boldly into solo traditional folk singing before reconciling that passion with her indie rock influences to make the acclaimed new album Wary & Strange. Yola is from Bristol, England and grew up idolizing Dolly Parton and country songwriting. She found her support path through the Americana Association’s UK chapter and rapturously received sets of original country-soul at AmericanaFest in Nashville. Adia Victoria of the South Carolina low country channeled the foundational blues queens into a Southern gothic indie rock sound of stunning originality. Sunny War and Yasmin Williams are brilliant acoustic guitarists who update the pioneering approach of Elizabeth Cotten. And that’s not close to an exhaustive list.

As for Russell, her story has been written in the sky this year after her debut solo album Outside Child came out in May. Woven into its 11 songs are elements of the excruciating story of her rapist stepfather and her moves to escape and find love and support as a vulnerable young person. Somehow, she lets us into this history with light and redemption, and her skills as a unique instrumentalist (clarinet) and arranger help round out a complete work of musical art. Russell emerged as an artist with the folk band Po’ Girl and then her duo Birds of Chicago with her husband. But Outside Child helped put her in the leadership position that led to her curator role and host of Sunday night.

The artists themselves were certainly moved. “I can’t tell you how much it meant to sing with Chaka and all the fam on stage,” wrote Yola on Instagram. “It was a moment in Newport history and thanks to my chosen sister @allisonrussellmusic who is just the most brilliant shining light!”

Then she signed off with a statement of global truth on behalf of the entire wave of black feminine energy in roots music. “We ain’t done though, keep your eyes trained here for more!”

Chaka Khan and Allison Russell
Anthony Mulcahy
Chaka Khan and Allison Russell at Newport