Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

On The String: Allison Russell And The New Americana Vanguard

Allison Russell
Marc Baptiste

Episode 193 of The String, the final show of 2021, opens with one of the year’s most symbolic and galvanizing moments, the Sunday afternoon closing set at July’s Newport Folk Festival. Nashville’s Allison Russell, riding high on the critical acclaim that followed the May release of her solo debut album Outside Child, was invited by Newport to curate a set that told a story. Here’s how I reported that at the time:

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.

Allison Russell

Many of those women released exceptional records during 2021 or otherwise kicked their careers into overdrive. Russell told me in our conversation that she took a lot of pride and hope from that boisterous evening in Rhode Island.

“When I got the opportunity to curate a stage, I was like, I want to make the biggest, best party I possibly can to celebrate all of us being able to gather together, to assemble again, and just uplift the voices and stories that have been in the shadows for a little too long. And you know, there's a problem with tokenism. There's a problem when you say there's only room for X many women, right? You can't have only one because that's like saying, we have Dolly Parton. We don't need Emmylou Harris, you know, we know we need them both. You need them all.”

Among the artist/activists pressing for change in roots music, Russell is a happy warrior. She’s uncompromising in her beliefs but full of praise when things move. In our interview, she talks about AmericanaFest 2021, where several dedicated panels and a privately sponsored Black Opry House created a sense of community that went beyond mere inclusion and diversity exercises.

“I've been coming for several years to AmericanaFest, and I've spoken on panels before. But this was the first time that there were actually other young black folks in the audience. It was really exciting. I was like, what is happening? This is new. And what I heard across the board was that people just felt more welcomed in, you know? I'm really proud of our Americana community for doing the tough work of self examination and really actively trying to open the door wider, you know? It's a beautiful thing, and we're at the beginnings of it.”

Russell’s dramatic story has now been widely told, how she grew up in Montreal trapped in a home with a stepfather who was a serial sexual abuser and how she ran away at 15 years old to face an uncertain future. It would seem the stuff of a book-length memoir more than folk songs, but she says that as a girl, she was surrounded by music, and that became a liferaft.

“I knew from my earliest childhood that music was magic. And I was lucky to grow up in Montreal, which is a city that is imbued with art and music. We have the Jazz Fest every year. And I remember hearing Oscar Peterson play for free in the park. And I did not know that that was special. I just knew that it inhabited me and consumed me completely.”

It is quite something to hear somebody with so much childhood trauma to live with to call herself lucky, but that’s the power of artistic transmogrification that Russell lives and exemplifies in the songs of Outside Child. I hope you enjoy the interview and that you have a healthy, happy new year.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org