The sheer number of Grammy nominations that Yola and Allison Russell have racked up over the past two years – eight, in categories occupying the intersection between country music roots and the raw hybrid of pop, folk and soul of Americana – show the excellence of the artists reached.
But when the pair hit the headlines and open Yola’s tour at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium on March 3, something more than a night of critically acclaimed music is at stake.
In the mother church of country music, the evening will be a celebration of the profound work done by black women in country and American music over the past 24 months, led by Yola, a British woman of Caribbean descent and Russell, its Caribbean and Scottish-Canadian. chosen sister born in Montreal.
“I’m terrified and excited at the same time,” Yola told The Tennessean, laughing, of the first gig of her tour. She says unequivocally, “I now make the statement for women in music in general, and women of color in music in particular, that you don’t need to be in the service of art or music. someone else’s vision of yourself to be worthy of appreciation.”
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The idea that the gig might be called a “Chosen Family Reunion” instead of a “Chosen Family Reunion” came up in a conversation between The Tennessean and Russell. It is a notion that fascinates the artist.
“If you’re in the Ryman, on March 3, it’s a room of people ready and willing to see everyone there and see them in their full and most authentic humanity. We’re here to honor the foundations laid for a total, whole, equal and human creativity in a “new Nashville”.
Black women who would have first existed in the colonial days of the Confederacy as slaves are now holding their own on Nashville’s most famous stage – in an incredibly dynamic and frenetic time.
Impressive, it feels like they planned it this way two years ago.
Stranded in America due to travel issues, Yola joined Russell’s family as a guest and roommate living in Rhiannon Giddens’ home in Antioch, Tennessee, where Russell stayed during the first wave of COVID quarantine. -19 in 2020. The time spent at the kitchen table in the house (“hours, plotting and scheming, until five a.m.,” Yola said.) included so much thinking about how to ‘self-illuminating black skin for their quarantined streaming performances (like Yola Tiny Desk’s August 2020 NPR) as they did lyrics, melodies and release strategies for the albums that became “Outside Child ” by Russell, released in May 2021, and “Stand For Myself” by Yola, released in July 2021.
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As key as this era seems to have forged the bond that spawned a revolution, the partnership began much less formally three years prior.
“When I met Yola, I was mesmerized by her singing, her songwriting and her performance,” Russell tells The Tennessean of meeting at the Calgary Folk Festival in July 2017. “We were actually together – – Yola, my husband JT and my daughter, Ida — for three consecutive weekends in Canada that summer. By the end of that period, Yola and I were singing together, and by the Edmonton Folk Festival by the end of that race, Rhiannon and Brandi Carlile had booked there, and we all got to know each other better and become friends quickly.”
After spending the better part of three hours talking with Yola, Russell and Joy Oladokun, a singer-songwriter inspired by their work – who is also a credited songwriter on Yola’s award-nominated “Stand For Myself” album 2022 Grammy Awards for Best America – it’s becoming apparent that the grandiose claims about the work of artists like Yola, Russell, and many other allies, rising stars, and high-profile professionals aren’t exaggerated by grandiose descriptors.
While working with Yola on the soulful, yet tired and proud opener “Stand For Myself” “Barely Alive”, Oladokun (whom Yola describes as “essential” to her album and “another dark-skinned girl who loves music guitar”) adds: “Ahhh, Queen Yola, the living legend” with an affectionate note in her soft voice. “She’s a kindred spirit. We’ve created an honest moment that will hopefully inspire other unique perspectives that have been marginalized for so long.”
Comparatively, with a direct challenge, Allison Russell sings on “Outside Child” “Nightflyer” – a song nominated for Best American Song and Performance at the 64th Grammy Awards – “What could they bring to stop me, Lord? / Nothing of the land, nothing of the sea / Not a thing of Almighty God.” The song serves as a healing balm for the survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Moreover, it became one of the many hymns on which this transcendent social movement was forged into songs and rhythms.
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It’s one of the best – but not the first – times Russell has turned her voice into a weapon of justice and visibility for marginalized communities.
Prior to the second half of the 2010s, she was a notable folk artist as a member of Birds of Chicago with her husband J.T. Nero. However, in 2019 she teamed up with fellow black women and folk musicians Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla and Amythyst Kiah for the album “Songs of Our Native Daughters” released by Smithsonian Folkways Records.
Through the well-regarded collection, the black female quartet reclaims the roots of the banjo as an instrument that African Americans immigrated to America by playing songs written after the group read slave tales and the scripts of the first minstrel shows. In a 2021 interview, Russell called the album “restorative art” that served to not only heal black people, but “heal everyone by teaching, through music, a much less biased version — and decolonized – of history”.
If Russell brings the words, Yola brings what she calls “the grooves”. This is not to undermine the writing of his album. However, Yola’s “Stand For Myself”, released in July 2021, perfectly mixes disco, funk, rock and country in an album you’d call “eclectic” if you – like many Americans didn’t – grew up. listening to genre-independent music. British radio when I was a kid.
At a time when diversity sprung onto radio dials in the US, in the UK it coalesced. As the Ryman headliner notes, she spent her teenage years hearing R&B band like Brownstone, alt-pop artists Beck and Bjork, rappers A Tribe Called Quest, grunge from Soundgarden and country from Shania. Twain on the same station. Add to that a mother as obsessed with listening to Barry White disco records as she was with the 70s funk/rock/country hybrid act Little Feat in their house – the creative formation of a record that may encompass the proud torch song “Stand For Myself”. ‘ and ‘Dancing Away In Tears’ make sense.
“I stand in a big hellmouth, a lion’s den, and a wind tunnel of activity,” Yola continues regarding her vision of navigating America as a black artist who has a clear vision of how she wants to change the world. Jokingly, she notes that taking much of the creative direction for her album “Stand For Myself” from her creative collaborator and Easy Eye Sound label owner Dan Auerbach involved saying, “Yeah, I’m late. [to taking control of my career]but I’m here now, and here’s what we’re doing!”
All in all, Russell offers a note of hope on March 3 that highlights the full power of the moment:
“I’m thrilled that Yola’s career has arrived at a time when she can [headline the Ryman]. I’m also grateful that she stayed in intentional coalition with other artists, like me, who in the past couldn’t play in venues like this. She keeps a door wide open to continue the necessary gathering and building of an inclusive community and movement for black and marginalized people and artists.”
She punctuates this point with a sort of manifesto:
“We are clearly not healed yet as a country, music industry and nation. But Yola, I and others are here as much to empower and heal as to do the hard work needed to open spaces and ensure make everyone feel welcome.”