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Allison Russell has a decisive role at Newport, and it’s ‘a big deal’

Allison Russell is curating the Newport Folk Festival’s Sunday night closing set.
Allison Russell is curating the Newport Folk Festival’s Sunday night closing set.Marc Baptiste

The day before her debut solo album came out in May, Allison Russell moved into a historic home in East Nashville with her husband and their daughter. Now she’s a 10-minute walk from her good friend Yola.

“I’m real excited about sidewalks,” says Russell, who will present the Newport Folk Festival’s Sunday night closing set this weekend with surprise guests. “I’m a big walker.”

Her welcoming new neighborhood is a far cry from the family’s previous home in a Nashville suburb, where someone threw a bottle at her while she was out for a jog.

“I thought, ‘This isn’t fulfilling my Black joy,’” she recalls with a bitter laugh.

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Russell, who is in her 40s, is a survivor. She spent her younger years recovering from abuse at the hands of her adoptive father. Her debut, “Outside Child,” tackles the trauma head on; it’s harrowing, and also full of grace.

Asked to curate one of the folk festival’s trademark ensemble sets, she looked to a spiritual ancestor for guidance. For Russell, Newport’s defining moment — when Bob Dylan plugged in an electric guitar in 1965 — couldn’t have happened without the late folk singer Odetta setting the stage.

The Newport Folk Festival debuted in 1959 after the impresario George Wein began selling out shows with Odetta at Storyville, his Boston jazz club. He’d already established the Newport Jazz Festival; Odetta, Pete Seeger, the Reverend Gary Davis, and a newcomer named Joan Baez helped inaugurate the folk festival.

Odetta, Russell says, “embodied what we now call ‘Americana.’” It’s a rich confluence of immigrant and indigenous sources, she says, “and Odetta said, ‘I am allowed to sing all of it.’ Which was radical in that day.

“To me, everything Odetta did was radical.”

Russell too carved her own path. On her own from an early age, she moved from her native Montreal to Vancouver, where she found a supportive community of artists and musicians. She started a band called Po’ Girl with Trish Klein of the Be Good Tanyas, who introduced her to the banjo. At the time, Russell says, she was unaware the instrument had African origins.

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“I had no idea of any Black contributions to anything in the world,” says Russell, who also plays the clarinet. “My father told me the story of my own worthlessness daily until I ran away from home at age 15.”

Actually, she says, her interest in the banjo reaches back further than her friendship with Klein: She first fell in love with the instrument when she saw Kermit the Frog play it in “The Muppet Movie.” As one of the four members of Our Native Daughters, Russell was on hand at Newport in 2019 to catch Kermit’s performance of “The Rainbow Connection.”

She was also invited to sing with Mavis Staples that weekend. So Newport was dear to her heart even before she was asked to be the first Black woman to curate a headline set.

“That’s a big deal. It makes me want to cry. It’s deeply meaningful, and a healing thing,” Russell says. After Newport, she’ll appear at the Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River (July 29), and she has upcoming dates at Thompson’s Point in Portland, Maine, opening for Nathaniel Rateliff and Lake Street Dive.

She is, she says, “genre-resistant.” Just as the civil rights movement of the 1960s had a diverse soundtrack, Russell believes that music of all kinds still holds the potential to bring people together.

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“Music, the way it disseminates, the way we share it and feel it, is intrinsically anti-bigotry,” she says. “We put our ‘ism’s on it, and we try and separate it, but music resists that, continually.”

E-mail James Sullivan at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.