Dolly Parton closed down the second day of the Newport Folk Festival by leading a chorus of the most elated singers rock, pop, country and bluegrass can claim — and she did so after pulling off one of the best surprises in the event’s storied history.
Previous years at Newport Folk have seen massive, communal performances featuring several members of the festival’s lineup. 2018 hosted a Jon Batiste-curated tribute to the music of the Civil Rights Movement; 2015 gathered a riotous crew to sing through the music of Bob Dylan on the 50th anniversary of his going electric, and 2009 offered a Pete Seeger-led throwback to the protest music of the ‘60s. But in 2019, festival producer Jay Sweet handed the curatorial steering wheel over to Brandi Carlile for this year’s main event: billed mysteriously as ????: The Collaboration, the final set of Saturday (July 27) kept its list of participants a secret until Carlile took the stage to address the crowd and introduce her own addition to this legacy.
“The Newport Folk Festival has had a habit of being on the right side of history for all of its 60 years,” she began. “It never wavered on that. In 1963, Newport joined the Civil Rights Movement led by the Freedom Singers for a march through Newport, and made its way to the March on Washington. In 1965, as you all know, Bob Dylan famously plugged in here to a mixed reception. In 1967, Judy Collins curated a set over on the Harbor Stage, where she introduced Joni fucking Mitchell to Leonard Cohen. In 1969, Johnny Cash introduced the world to Kris Kristofferson. We all know these things; this is why we’re here. But today, on its 60th anniversary, Newport Folk Festival is going to have its very first all-female headlining collaboration. It’s time.”
She then brought out Courtney Marie Andrews, Rachael Price and Bridget Kearney of Lake Street Dive, Candy Carpenter and Molly Tuttle to sing Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.” A series of perfect match-ups followed, from Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray rocking through her own “Go” with Lucy Dacus and Carlile to Linda Perry leading the whole fort through the iconic choruses of 4 Non Blonde’s “What’s Up.”
Sheryl Crow, who played the main stage of the festival the day before, ran the emotional gamut with graceful might: Carlile and Maren Morris joined her to soar through “If It Makes You Happy,” and she cracked jokes about her love life and amount of estrogen onstage (“My ovaries keep getting younger and younger!”) before tapping Maggie Rogers and Yola for back-up on a transcendent version of “Strong Enough,” the slow-picked heartbreaker off 1993’s Tuesday Night Music Club. Sweet escorted a chiffon-swathed Collins, wearing a “RESIST” necklace, to the microphone, where she recounted how she was woken up in the middle of the night with the news that Mitchell would cover “Both Sides Now” before she sang through a heavenly version of it with Carlile.
Then along came Dolly, and with it her veritable support in the Highwomen. Parton shared the stage with the supergroup of Carlile, Morris, Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby when she walked out to join them for an a cappella arrangement of “Eagle When She Flies” (to riotous, genuinely shocked applause). Every singer — Maggie Rogers, Sheryl Crow, Yola, Jade Bird, Rachael Price and Bridget Kearney of Lake Street Dive, Amy Ray, Lucy Dacus and more — sidled up to Parton for “9-5” for the set’s grand finale, and many of them were simply beaming with joy. (Bird’s was especially contagious, as her smile could likely be spotted by the boats moored around the fort.)
The crowd ate up Parton’s honed and hilarious banter (with her typical blush-inducing anecdotes from the early days of her marriage and her husband’s flirtation with a bank teller, which inspired “Jolene”) in between, but one softer moment with Carlile stands out as history being etched in real time, the stuff of legend-making in progress. Parton shares one of her greatest hits, her 1974 ballad “I Will Always Love You,” in the broader cultural sense: when Whitney Houston belted that high note on her cover of the track for The Bodyguard’s soundtrack in 1992, she became another narrator in the song’s story. Carlile is the third to join that exclusive club after she and Parton sang “I Will Always Love You” as a duet at Newport Folk, a stirring version that was just as threatening to the tear ducts as the original.
In a festival landscape where women are excluded from the headlining slots more often than not, Newport Folk did their part in correcting that course by handing its stage, quite literally, to a woman. They didn’t just give Carlile a microphone or borrow her name but promotion, but truly trusted Carlile and gave her the space and platform to invite women to the festival, celebrate their voices and honor their contributions to Newport folklore.
The Newport Folk Festival wraps on Sunday (July 28) with performances from Hozier, Portugal. the Man, Lake Street Dive and more.