On Nov. 10, Allison Russell woke up to a text from her friend Brandi Carlile. She learned that she had been nominated for four Grammy Awards: Best Americana Album, for this year’s The Returner; Best American Roots Song and Performance, for the song of the same title; and an additional Best American Roots Performance for “Eve Was Black.” (It’s great to have nominations, but having two in the same category could lead to vote-splitting and make her less likely to win.)
The Returner is Russell’s second solo album, coming two years after her debut, 2021’s Outside Child. That album received three Grammy nominations: Best Americana Album, and Best American Roots Song and Performance for “Nightflyer.” She also won Album of the Year from the Americana Music Association as well as the Juno Award, in her native Canada, for Roots Music Album of the Year.
A native of Montreal, Quebec, the 44-year-old Russell’s journey to recognition and acclaim has been anything but easy. She was abused by her father and left home home at 15, sleeping in cemeteries. As she told the audience at The Birchmere on Dec. 10, on the last show of the current leg of The Returner tour, her father was born in 1936 in a sundown town in Indiana; he was old enough to be her grandfather, old enough to be her mother’s father. She attributed his abusiveness to internalized racism he absorbed from the environment where he grew up.
“There was a time when I thought he was a monster,” she said. She shared that he is now very sick, and the next step on her healing journey is “to tell him I forgive him.”
After graduating high school, Russell moved across Canada from Montreal to Vancouver. There, she met Trish Klein, with whom she formed the trio Po’ Girl. In fact, it was 20 years ago — in 2003 — that their first CD came out. Her first time playing The Birchmere came as a member of that group, when they opened for Girlie Men. There was, she said, a lot of sleeping on floors and busking during that time. “I almost got my banjo confiscated,” she said, for not having a permit to busk.
When Po’ Girl broke up, Russell moved on to Chicago, where she connected with JT Nero, who would become her husband and musical partner in the duo Birds of Chicago. They performed together for nearly a decade, toward the end of which she took part in the acclaimed Black female roots music collective Our Native Daughters with Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, and Leyla McCalla. That project inspired her to dig deep into her own personal history and journey, leading to the release of Outside Child a few years later.
Outside Child and The Returner, she explained, are the first and second parts of a trilogy. Outside Child is “reconciling with my past,” and The Returner is the present. The third album, which she plans to call The Rainbow Coalition — the name she uses for her band, taken from Jesse Jackson’s civil rights movement — will presumably address the future.
Stream The Returner by Allison Russell on Spotify.
Before I get to the substance of Sunday’s show — which was brilliant — I want to address the nature of Russell’s music. There’s a tendency for critics to call sophisticated pop music country; this is done with artists like Neko Case and Jenny Lewis. Sure, these brilliant women may occasionally use roots music instrumentation, as Russell does with the banjo. But these artists are far more the musical descendants of, say, Cyndi Lauper, than they are of Loretta Lynn. (And Lauper herself has made excursions into roots-oriented territory.)
The Returner, especially, is an infectious, groove-laden album. It has some banjo on it, but it’s pop, and that’s not a criticism. But if the Grammys and year-end lists want to put Russell on “Folk and Americana” lists, well, as long as she makes the list, and the work gets out to people, I say that’s great. We make too much of genres: I once heard Steve Earle quote Townes Van Zandt as saying there’s two kinds of music: the blues and “Zippity Doo-Dah.” By that reasoning, we can call what Allison Russell does blues, because it’s sure as hell not “Zippity Doo-Dah.”
Now that we’ve dealt with the music criticism portion of this write-up, we can get to talking about The Birchmere show itself, which was, as I said, fantastic. Russell has a gorgeous, powerful voice; she’s been compared, vocally, to folk legend Odetta, and she can belt a tune. The Birchmere was sold out, and Russell projected her voice into every corner of the room. She started the show with “Fourth Day Prayer” and dedicated “Stay Right Here” to “my daughter and all of the other children.” Next up was “Eve Was Black.” For “Demons,” she got the crowd involved in a simple but enthusiastic call and response.
Russell has a fine sense of humor. She called The Birchmere “the rowdiest supper club I’ve ever played,” adding, “My night will be complete if someone ends up dancing on a table.” I contemplated it, but I’m dealing with post-tibial tendon dysfunction, so I’m trying to take it easy on my feet. I’m also not sure I trust the structural integrity of the tables to bear my 200 pounds, and, more importantly, I don’t think The Birchmere’s management would’ve appreciated it. Russell was also deep thoughts in addition to whimsical ones: She told the audience, “I believe what Alice Walker wrote: ‘We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.'”
After “Superlover,” she talked about how she’s working on a memoir. She hopes to finish the draft this year. At the Big Ears festival, she got to meet Rickie Lee Jones, who published the well-received memoir Last Chance Texaco. Jones told her not to stress too much about deadlines, as she was some seven years late with her book. I can’t wait to read the memoir.
The set also included “Persephone,” about Russell’s first girlfriend, “Shadowlands,” “Rag Child,” and “Nightflyer.” For her encore, she dedicated “You’re Not A Not Alone” to V, wishing them a speedy recovery. This was one of the most joyful and moving nights of music I’ve seen in some time time; Russell deserves all of the praise she’s been getting these last few years.