Newport Folk Festival 2019: 10 Best Things We Saw

In the 60 years since its inception, the Newport Folk Festival has undergone many a shape shift. But this year the fest’s star-spangled lineup, one of its most diverse in recent memory and the most gender-balanced ever, did full justice to the plurality and collective spirit of the folk tradition. Newport’s main stage was packed with women on Saturday, for an all-female collaboration curated by Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile. “Thank you for being on the right side of history again,” she said, before inviting up first-time Newport act and living country-music legend Dolly Parton. Other noteworthy surprises included a guest appearance by James Taylor via speedboat, the recently departed Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss, and one very special amphibian.

Dolly Parton Turns Up During Brandi Carlile Variety Show
Billed simply as “♀♀♀♀: The Collaboration,” Saturday’s enigmatic headlining act turned out to be the Brandi Carlile Variety Show — or a one-hour, female-centric set specially curated by the Highwoman herself. Apart from her own band, show host Carlile ushered in a stream of both fest veterans and virgins; among the first-time Folk Festers was, quite surprisingly, none other than Dolly Parton. Introduced by Carlile as an “incomparable unicorn legend,” Dolly herself emerged from backstage in a golden yellow pantsuit, embroidered with roses and sequin wagon wheels. Together with the help of the Highwomen, Dolly breezed through a few of her classics: “Eagle When She Flies,” “Just Because I’m a Woman,” “Jolene,” and “I Will Always Love You” — plus an full-cast choir of “9 to 5,” featuring Sheryl Crow, Linda Perry, Amy Ray, Judy Collins, and many others. “Me and Rhode Island have a lot in common,” said Dolly. “We’re little, but we’re loud, and we do big things!” S.E.

The Highwomen Premiere Their Thrilling Debut Album
“We’re the Highwomen/Sing a story still untold,” sang Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Amanda Shires, and Natalie Hemby in their first-ever full show as the Highwomen. Performing with a band that included Jason Isbell and the Hanseroth Twins with Yola and Sheryl Crow appearing as guests, the supergroup traded off songs from their forthcoming debut album. During their rapturously received hourlong set, Shires sang a song in honor of her father (“Cocktail and a Song”), Hemby offered up an ode to “all the suburban moms” (“My Only Child”), and Morris channeled the Seventies country stomp of Dolly Parton (“Loose Change”). But the apex of came halfway through when Carlile debuted tears-in-your-beers piano ballad “If She Ever Leaves Me,” which she described as the “first gay country song.” “That’s too much cologne,” Carlile sang in the song. “She likes perfume.” J.B.

James Taylor Docks Boat in Front of Fort Stage, Visits Sheryl Crow
Upon waking up on Friday in Newport, Sheryl Crow had likely planned on an easygoing main stage set that evening — jam-packed with classics from her Nineties catalogue, duets with Highwomen Brandi Carlile and Maren Morris, and an all-too-necessary PSA on addressing climate change. (We hope it worked — and so do her kids!) But Crow was in for a surprise when James Taylor texted her just 15 minutes before her set: “Maybe I should come sit in with you.” The legendary singer-songwriter had been boating with his family nearby when organizer Jay Sweet called the Coast Guard to dock him outside the Fort Stage; dressed in a simple cotton shirt and baseball cap, Taylor managed to move through the crowd undetected, until he emerged onstage to sing Crow’s 1996 country-rock hit “Everyday Is a Winding Road.” It was only a coincidence that 50 years before, his own first Newport set was cut short by the 1969 moon landing. “Maybe next year,” said Crow, “they’ll come out and say we’re walking on Mars!” S.E.

Kacey Musgraves’ Chilled-Out Country Finds a Fitting Home at Newpor
After many years of being steadily infiltrated by East Nashville’s legion of country/roots singer-songwriters, it was only a matter of time before a bona fide major label country star took Newport’s main stage. With her retro-country grounding and Seventies singer-songwriter leanings, Kacey Musgraves made for an ideal genre ambassador, bringing a fittingly subdued set of Golden Hour highlights to her victory-lap Friday afternoon performance. Despite the genre-crossing, pop-friendly ambition of her blockbuster 2018 album, at Newport, songs like “Mother,” “Oh, What a World,” and “Rainbow” emphasized the singer’s penchant for the type of unadorned traditional songwriting that the festival has celebrated since its beginnings. J.B.

Yola performs with the Highwomen at Newport Folk Festival in Newport, Rhode Island. Photograph by Jacob Blickenstaff

Yola Becomes the Voice of 2019 Newport
Despite having just released her solo debut album five months ago, British singer-songwriter Yola became the single most sought-after voice at this year’s festival. She played a triumphant side-stage show, served as an unofficial member of the Highwomen, and added her own vocals to performances by everyone from Dolly Parton to Dawes, who let the fast-rising singer take over for the entirety of their 2009 song “When You Call My Name.” During her own set, Yola played sparse renditions of her lush-pop debut Walk Through Fire, accenting her prowess as an unadorned singer-songwriter. But it was her dynamic vocal theatrics throughout the entire weekend — from hushed whisper to mid-range backup singing to show-stopping belting — that made her voice stand out above all others. J.B.

Ramblin’ Jack Elliott Swaps Songs and Stories
One week shy of his 88th birthday, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott provided a lucky few with a precious performance, exchanging cowboy songs and swapping stories with one of his young disciples, the Lubbock, Texas Western song collector Andy Hedges. In between his finely polished stories and extended song introductions, the duo traded off on Woody Guthrie originals like “Philadelphia Lawyer” and Guthrie-associated standards like “Buffalo Skinners.” Fifty-six years after making his Newport debut in 1963, the famous folk troubadour was still affecting, if not downright commanding, on renditions of “Arthritis Blues” and a poignant closer of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” With precious few performers from Newport’s Sixties heyday still around to play the 60th anniversary of the historic festival, Ramblin’ Jack’s showcase was an urgent reminder of folk music’s storied history as the genre continues to expand and progress. J.B.

J.S. Ondara performs at Newport Folk Festival in Newport, Rhode Island. Photograph by Sachyn Mital

J.S. Ondara’s Falsetto Stuns the Crowd Into Silence
By the time J.S. Ondara brought up members of Dawes to play behind him for the second half of his Sunday afternoon side-stage appearance, it was clear that the up-and-coming Kenyan singer-songwriter had made a memorable first impression on the festival crowd. But long before Ondara concluded his performance with a chilling rendition of “Saying Goodbye,” the Bob Dylan–adoring singer sang highlights like “Television Girl” and “Days of Insanity” from his debut album Tales of America that rendered the spillover audience spellbound. They remained so quiet, in fact, that a band tuning their banjos in a nearby trailer could be heard above Ondara’s haunting falsetto. J.B.

Cover Songs Ring Out From Every Corner of the Fest
In every corner of the folk music tradition, it’s paramount to pay respects to your roots, and this weekend, artists laid their roots bare through their a variety of cover songs. Yola paid a striking homage to her fellow Brit Elton John with a cover of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” while Lucy Dacus flexed her French with a charming guitar version of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose”; then, with assistance from Rachael Price of Lake Street Dive, Phish’s Trey Anastasio sang a honeyed version of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” And donning a vintage Slipknot shirt, “dirt emo” champion Ruston Kelly enthralled millennial show-goers on Saturday with a cover of Wheatus’ 2000 pop punk anthem, “Teenage Dirtbag.” (The band even tweeted their approval later that day: “The love is real,” they wrote.) S.E.

Our Native Daughters Confront History Head-On, Offering a New Path Forward
Dolly Parton’s surprise Saturday evening appearance may have grabbed the lion’s share of this year’s headlines at Newport, but the weekend’s most urgently powerful performance belonged to Our Native Daughters, the banjo-driven folk supergroup comprising Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Allison Russell, and Leyla McCalla. Within the span of an hour, the quartet traded off on an all-embracing array of old-time songs — equal parts gut-wrenching and galvanizing — that told a 400-odd-year story of black womanhood in America. There were repeated standing ovations (during “Quasheba, Quasheba” and “Blood and Bones,” to name a few) and plenty of tears (Giddens had a hard time finishing “Mama’s Crying Long”), but also an endless display of joy all the while (“You’re Not Alone” “Black Myself”). As Kiah put it at the end of the set, “This has been a spiritual experience with y’all today.” J.B.

Jim James and Kermit the Frog perform at Newport Folk Festival in Newport, Rhode Island. Photograph by Sachyn Mital

Janet Weiss, Kermit the Frog Kick Off a Pete Seeger–Inspired Sing-Along Finale
“Fuck it up, Kermit!” shouted an ecstatic fan when it was revealed that the opening singer of the Newport’s final set celebrating the spirit of Pete Seeger on what would have been the singer’s 100 birthday was none other than Kermit the Frog. Kermit’s duet with Jim James on “Rainbow Connection” kicked off a fitting ending to this year’s historic festival: With an ace backing band including John Stirrat, Benmont Tench, Chris Funk, and Janet Weiss (“drummer for hire,” as she was introduced), a slew of guests including Alynda Lee Segarra, Mavis Staples, Lake Street Dive, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band ran through sing-along folk favorites like “If I Had a Hammer” and “This Land Is Your Land.” The high point came when Staples joined Phil Cook, Hozier, Our Native Daughters, and Jason Isbell for a rousing rendition of the civil-rights-movement anthem “Eyes on the Prize.” Shortly after, Robin Pecknold, James Mercer, and Eric Johnson tackled “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” with the song’s inspiration — Judy Collins — appearing halfway through. “The first time [Stephen Stills] played that for me, I said, ‘You know, that’s a great song,’” Collins told the crowd, “‘but it’s not going to get me back.’” J.B.

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