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See Dolly Parton Join the Highwomen, Linda Perry at Newport Folk Festival

Judy Collins, Sheryl Crow, Amy Ray also joined headlining act “♀♀♀♀: The Collaboration”

There’s no question: this year’s Newport Folk Festival belonged to women. In 2019, Newport boasted the highest number of female acts in its 60-year history, incorporating a broad spectrum of voices: From indie heroines Black Belt Eagle Scout, Our Native Daughters and Yola, to Grammy winners Kacey Musgraves and Sheryl Crow. And consisting of Amanda Shires, Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby and Brandi Carlile, country music supergroup the Highwomen made a stunning live debut at the Quad stage on Friday — then on Saturday, an encore.

Billed simply as “♀♀♀♀: The Collaboration,” Saturday’s enigmatic headlining act turned out to be a Brandi Carlile Variety Show, or a one-hour, female-centric set specially curated by the Highwoman herself. “Newport has always been on the right side of history,” said Carlile, recalling several footnotes in its storied history: from the 1963 performance by civil rights choir Freedom Singers, to Bob Dylan’s controversial embrace of electric guitar. “In its 60th year, Newport is going to have its very first all-female, headlining collaboration,” continued Carlile. “Thank you for being on the right side of history again!”

Apart from her own band, show host Carlile ushered in a stream of both the festival’s veterans and virgins; among the first-time Folk Festers was, quite surprisingly, 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. “Me and Rhode Island have a lot in common,” she said. “We’re little, but we’re loud, and we do big things!”

With help from the Highwomen and a higher-hatted Linda Perry, Parton opened her portion of the set with her 1991 ballad, “Eagle When She Flies.” The band then eased into “Just Because I’m a Woman,” after a quick story time from Parton. “When you boys want to get married,” she said, recounting her awkward wedding night with husband, Carl Dean: “You want us women to be pure as snow… and sometimes we’re not!”

Both Parton and Carlile conjured many a tear from the audience with their chilling rendition of 1974’s “I Will Always Love You” — a song that, Parton noted, was re-recorded for a movie she jokingly renamed, “The Best Little Chickenhouse in Texas.Before the Highwomen returned to join her for “Jolene,” Parton offered up another story, this time about a redheaded bank teller who bewitched Dean — and inspired the timeless country-bluegrass hit. “I told him, ‘I know you work in [the] asphalt [business],” said Parton. “But it’ll be your ass and your fault if I leave!'”

Parton’s surprise appearance may have stolen the show entirely — had the Fort stage not been flanked with multiple generations of country and folk music talent. Paying homage to the great Folk Fest alumna Joni Mitchell, millennial starlets Courtney Marie Andrews, Lake Street Dive, Candy Carpenter and Molly Tuttle opened the showcase with a cover of “Big Yellow Taxi.” Then along with the First Ladies of Bluegrass — badass washboard player included — British blues powerhouse Yola followed with a fierce rendition of Aretha Franklin and the Eurythmics’ feminist anthem, “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves.”

Then came the Nineties block. Together with young gun Lucy Dacus, Amy Ray breathed new fire into her rousing 1995 song, the Indigo Girls’ “Go”; and out came Sheryl Crow, who called up Maren Morris to reprise her 1996 hit “If It Makes You Happy” from her Friday set. (“Who likes getting stoned?” polled Morris.) Crow also invited Yola and stellar newcomer Maggie Rogers to the stage for her Tuesday Night Music Club ballad “Strong Enough.” Perry came tumbling after with her Gen X anthem “What’s Up?” — but not without Jade Bird, and some heavy audience participation. “I want you to sing so high,” said Perry, “I wanna touch the fucking stars!”

Back for her eighth appearance at Newport Folk Fest — her first in 1963 — singer-songwriter Judy Collins flaunted pink satin and a “Resist” necklace, before she and Carlile shared vocals on the Mitchell-penned song, “Both Sides Now.” Evidently, Joni Mitchell’s presence was very much missed on Saturday; “I only got the song because my friend Al Kooper thought [Mitchell] was pretty and followed her home,” recalled Collins. “Just imagine, if he [dialed] Buffy Sainte-Marie’s number instead!”

The Collaboration’s set was all too short. After an hour of laughs and deftly-executed harmonies, the show closed with a jubilant, even if a little sobering performance of Parton’s “9 to 5.” Although this year’s Newport lineup was the closest it’s ever come to feminist utopia, how many more years will it take until we achieve a wider-scale semblance of gender parity in music, much less any industry in the United States? And if the future is female, will it get any blacker, or browner, or more fluid in its expression? Will it speak languages besides English, and still play guitar?

But before anyone could dwell too hard on the impact of Parton’s working class anthem, or the potential aftershock of this much girl power at a country show, Parton hurriedly skirted the group’s curtain call, and flitted back to the motorcade she rode in with. She said, “I got a plane to catch!”

♀♀♀♀: The Collaboration Setlist 

Courtney Marie Andrews, Lake Street Dive, Candy Carpenter and Molly Tuttle, “Big Yellow Taxi” (Joni Mitchell cover)
Yola and the First Ladies of Bluegrass, “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” (Aretha Franklin and The Eurythmics cover)
Amy Ray and Lucy Dacus, “Go”
Sheryl Crow and Maren Morris, “If It Makes You Happy”
Sheryl Crow, Yola and Maggie Rogers, “Strong Enough”
Linda Perry, Jade Bird and Highwomen, “What’s Up?”
Judy Collins and Brandi Carlile, “Both Sides Now”
The Highwomen, Sheryl Crow and Yola, “Highwomen”
Dolly Parton and The Highwomen, “Eagle When She Flies”
Dolly Parton and The Highwomen, “Just Because I’m a Woman”
Dolly Parton and Brandi Carlile, “I Will Always Love You”
Dolly Parton and The Highwomen, “Jolene”
The Collaboration, “9 to 5”