Brandi Carlile Explains Why She 'Almost Lost It' When She Brought Out Dolly Parton at Newport Folk Fest

Maren Morris and Brandi Carlile
Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

Maren Morris and Brandi Carlile perform as part of the Collaboration during day two of the 2019 Newport Folk Festival at Fort Adams State Park on July 27, 2019 in Newport, Rhode Island. 

The Grammy winner opens up about the all-female festival set she curated and how it relates to gender equality in the music industry.

Brandi Carlile had been ramping up to the moment Dolly Parton embraced her following their duet at the 2019 Newport Folk Festival, but the enormity of the moment still left her beaming, like a kid who tasted triumph for the first time, when it actually arrived.

"It really hit me somewhere in the middle of the night last night, what had happened, before I stopped dwelling on the imperfections and things that no one in the audience knows or cares about that are happening onstage," Carlile told Billboard on Sunday (July 28), the morning after the performance. "I was just really overwhelmed, and thinking it was a gift that was bestowed upon me this year. I got to receive that gift. I didn’t feel like it was so much something I did as something I got to have. We all got to have that."

That "gift" goes beyond Parton -- though her presence indicated that Newport Folk, and Carlile's role in its history, reached a monumental new summit in 2019. Since her first set at Fort Adams in 2008, Carlile has become a constant on the festival's stages: she plays through her own sets and pops up as a special guest in others, unabashedly delighting in her favorite songs as they're sung by her fellow musicians a few feet away.

This year, she warmed up for her own set with the Highwomen, her new supergroup with Maren Morris, Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby, on Friday (July 26) by cheering on Sheryl Crow and joining her to belt out the chorus of "If It Makes You Happy." Crow, in turn, picked up a bass and joined the Highwomen minutes after she finished her set, and the women reunited the following evening for ????: The Collaboration, the super jam curated by Carlile that honored female voices and their place in Newport Folk's legacy. The Parton-led "9 to 5" made for the most exuberant group effort the festival has seen in recent history, but other songs -- like the Linda Perry-led sing-along of 4 Non Blondes' "What's Up," and Amy Ray's rendition of Indigo Girls' "Go" with Carlile and Lucy Dacus -- threw to female contributions in modern rock and their impact on the talent gathered onstage.

Carlile is the one who, with creative control ceded to her by festival producer Jay Sweet, brought Parton to Newport. She is not the first artist to be handed the reins in this capacity -- Jon Batiste paid tribute to the Civil Rights Movement with a soulful finale in 2018 -- but she's the first woman to do so, and it's a fitting role for the mover, shaker and advocate. In addition to her zeal for collaboration and lifting other women up, Carlile launched her own Girls Just Wanna Weekend festival in 2018, which also boasted a fully-female lineup, an anomaly in a landscape where women are often excluded from main stages and headlining slots.

Below, Carlile opens up about singing with Parton at Newport Folk, the amplification of female voices and how this festival set works into a broader conversation about gender equality across the music industry.

I can’t stop thinking about your duet with Dolly. I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but to me, it sounded as if you were singing “I Will Always Love You” as two women eventually leaving each other in a romantic sense -- the fact that I can even consider that interpretation feels significant. 

Thanks for pointing out the “I Will Always Love You” thing with Dolly. As a gay icon and probably the first country western singer to ever acknowledge and affirm LGBTQ people in a literary sense, she impacted me, hugely, when I read her book when I was 15. That was a big, full-circle moment for me, and I almost lost it when she pulled me close in that moment. But everybody on that stage was an icon, in their own sense -- the young ones and the ones that were up in their twilight years like Judy [Collins]. They all paved the way in one way or another. I can get into specifics about each and every one of them, and how I feel they’ve impacted the community of women that are coming up in music right now, but I’ll just leave it at saying their power was so self-evident. Those big, anthemic ‘90s moments [from] 4 Non Blondes and Indigo Girls, those younger girls knew those songs. We didn’t have to rehearse them -- we knew them, you know? They were, like, in our souls. 

Judy wore a “RESIST” necklace during this set. This whole production felt like a revolutionary act to me. Music festivals frequently exclude female talent from the top spots on any given lineup, and this set felt like a course correction of sorts.

I’ve been following that Instagram organization, Book More Women, since they came out. That opened my eyes. It was astounding. Even in my genres -- even in folk, rock, alternative music -- I’ve been taken off a tour for being a woman and told I couldn’t play in a venue because they were looking for a more male-fronted guitar band. I’m always a second or third-tiered artist, and very rarely a headliner. But I really do see it changing, and there are people coming along with the gravity to change it.

I had a lot of interesting criticisms about it before I tried to book my own all-female festival. That’s when I realized how systemic it is. That’s when I realized it’s not promoters and buyers and venue owners that are at fault. They’re dealing with a byproduct of what starts at the wage gap and starts at class division and ends at not having enough women headliners move the needle in the music industry now. It’s in the record industry -- there are not enough female A&R people, program directors, executives. There aren’t enough females getting signed, getting played on the radio, getting their records actually out of that record company. And then at the end of the day, you look back after a couple of years of criticizing this live music circuit, and you’re booking your own festival, and you’re realizing that there aren’t that many people to choose from. It’s really shown me a lot about the fact that the story of the other half of the human race isn’t getting told through music in the way that it should be, and in the way that it has in the past. It makes me realize how lucky we are to have been raised in the ‘90s. It was a really good time for women in music. 

I mean, we had Madonna --

I’m gonna put that on a t-shirt: “I mean, we had Madonna.” (laughs) And we had Lilith Fair! It shifted the whole industry in a way that was systemic. We could do that again from a live music platform. We can shift the whole industry just by kicking ass and taking names at these festivals and at these single-market venues. It’s a matter of chicken or the egg: who’s gonna take their cue from me? Is the recording industry going to take their cue from the live industry? Maybe. Is the live industry, right now, taking their cue from the recording industry? Yes. We could maybe flip the narrative in a really hopeful way.

Festivals 2019