For Allison Russell, taking a chance and sending a message to Brandi Carlile’s Instagram paid off. It started a conversation with Carlile’s wife, which lead to getting detailed, track-by-track feedback on her debut solo album, Outside Child. From there, it led to yet bigger things: a contract with the label Fantasy Records, which released the powerful record to “universal acclaim” (per Metacritic) last May. It has been nominated for Americana Album of the Year at this year’s Grammys, and the standout song “Nightflyer” has been nominated for Best American Roots Song and Performance.
“I have a great team behind me,” Russell told the audience at the sold-out Barns at Wolf Trap recently. “That’s why I’m ’emerging’ at 42,” she said, referring to her nomination for Emerging Artist of the Year at last year’s Americana Music Awards.
But Allison has been releasing music with various groups and projects for 20 years. In the early 2000s, she cofounded Po’ Girl, an eclectic roots group that mixed folk, country, alt-rock, blues, and jazz, with Trish Klein (of the Be Good Tanyas). After relocating to Chicago in 2012, she connected with her future husband, JT Nero, and they formed the duo Birds of Chicago. In 2019, they appeared as part of Luther Dickinson’s (of the North Mississippi Allstars) collaborative project Sisters of the Strawberry Moon, which featured several female artists in the Americana space. Later that year, she was also part (with Rhiannon Giddens, Layla McCalla, and Amythyst Kiah) of the highly lauded folk-blues project Songs of Our Native Daughters, which dealt the legacy of slavery and race in America.
It was at this cabin in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, where she went for 10 days to record the Native Daughters album that the seed for Outside Child was born. She had been going through a long stretch where she had been unable finish songs. At the time, her daughter was 4, and it was the first they’d been apart. During the writing and recording of Native Daughters, Allison was able to see how her personal history connected to the larger scope of social forces and issues. That connection is most directly explored in “Quesheba, Quesheba,” which is about the matriarch of her paternal line, who was born free in Africa and died a slave.
Watch Allison Russell perform “Quasheba, Quasheba” for Sundance ASCAP Music Café in 2021 via YouTube:
As a native of Montreal, Quebec, Canada, Russell’s take on Americana encompasses a unique blend of elements — not just the usual mix of folk, country, blues, and rock, but also jazz and klezmer. As a multi-instrumentalist, she plays the banjo and the clarinet. While there are influences from the American south, and from African-American culture and history in particular, you can also hear her incorporating the sounds she heard coming from the Jewish musicians of her hometown, which has one of the largest, most deeply-rooted such communities in Canada. She speaks French fluently, and even sings in it quite frequently, too.
One of the attractions of Americana music, especially early on when it was coalescing as a genre, was that so much of the music was unique and different, and it didn’t sound like anything else. But since the ’80s, other artists have come along who, even if they haven’t necessarily scaled those heights, have emulated much of those artists’ style. That is not the case with Allison: she is presenting some new and fresh and different. She’s bringing something to the new to the game, and it’s exciting to see and hear it. By virtue of her cultural background and personal history, she is helping to rejuvenate this music in important ways that keep it alive and move it into the future.
Allison’s history comes with heaviness, and it’s not easy to talk about. She addressed this directly during the concert at Wolf Trap on March 6, noting that some were reticent to give her album a listen, because it dealt with her history of trauma and abuse. After spending the first several years of her life in foster care, Allison went to live with her mother and stepfather, who sexually abused her. This is dealt with directly, honestly, and powerfully on the album.
Here’s thing about art: You make the things you make, and no one is forced to read them, or watch them, or listen to them. Different people have different tastes, and they have different tolerances when it comes to the emotional content of art. As someone who’s on the edge of breaking into published fiction and writes some emotionally bracing stuff, it would be better for my sales prospects if more people were open to the prospect of having their souls eviscerated, but I understand and respect that’s just not going to work for them. And no one is forcing me to see the latest poorly-reviewed, box-office-record-setting superhero movie.
As challenging as some of the material on Outside Child can be, Russell emphasized that the album is, ultimately, a celebration of survival and triumph. When she introduced “Persephone,” she said, “If you had told when I was a 15-year-old runway sleeping in the cemetery that life could get this good, I wouldn’t have believed you.” (The song is about a love affair with a girl which taught her about how rewarding consensual love can be.) This theme was repeated before “Fourth Day Prayer,” when she told the audience, “We are more than our scars.” Toward the end of the set, the songs “Joyful Motherfuckers” (Allison apologized to the audience for exposing any young people to the harsh language) and “You’re Not Alone” really drove home the point that this album, this music, is hopeful rather than depressing.
Watch Allison Russell perform “Joyful Motherfuckers” live at Ocean Way on YouTube:
It helps to understand what Allison is doing as a narrative arc. There’s a phrase used in stories, where you are said to “earn” an ending. For a happy or a joyful ending to work, there has to be a struggle to reach that point. The light is that much brighter when it follows the darkness, and everything becomes illuminated.
There are other things worth mentioning about this show: that the band was all-female, a powerful show of sisterhood by first-rate musicians. And the opener, Kyshona, who put on an excellent set, had more than a little of the legendary folksinger Odetta in her, with a powerful voice and a gift for telling stories. Going out alone in front of an audience with just an acoustic guitar exposes a performer, and Kyshona showed that she had the goods. Her songs are powerful, she has boatloads of charisma, and she knows how to get the crowd involved.
After coming to performing and recording following a decade-long career as a music therapist, in which she worked in nursing homes, mental hospitals, and with the incarcerated, she clearly has a great deal of empathy and insight into the human condition. Introducing “Burdens Down,” she said something that really resonated with me, about reaching rock bottom: “The hardest part is to leave every burden on that rock.” Her mission statement, she told the audience, “is to be a voice or a vessel for those who are lost or hurting.” Kyshona will be back in the area in April, performing at the Hill Center, and she’s definitely worth checking out. As a complement to Russell, she was a pitch-perfect choice, and a wonderful way to start the evening.
I haven’t been to a lot of shows at the Barns, but I’ve been consistently impressed with them. It’s a gorgeous venue, and you can smell the two-century old wood. The atmosphere was a perfect setting for this show, and I cannot fully do justice to what an emotionally powerful, intimate experience this was. The music was all performed with the utmost skill, and, moreover, it was performed with honesty and passion. I see a lot of shows, and, after a while, it can all get a bit routine. But there was nothing the least bit routine about this show: this was something truly special, a memorable experience that I and everyone in the audience will carry in our hearts. Outside Child is a phenomenal achievement, and to see Allison Russell perform this music was truly a privilege and a honor, and it is, easily, one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.
Here are some photos of Allison Russell performing at Wolf Trap on March 6, 2022. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.