The headlining set Saturday night at the Newport Folk Festival was billed mysteriously as “The Collaboration,” accompanied only by a set of female-gender symbols. Given the presence of Brandi Carlile and her new supergroup the Highwomen on the bill the previous day, her reputation for being one of the most able sitter-inners in show business, and the fact that she has already curated her own all-female festival, it didn’t take much imagination for fest-goers to imagine that this might be something she was cooking up.
What did take a further stretch of imagination, at least for anyone who hadn’t heard the whispers, was that making her Newport debut after all these decades would be — as she was introduced by Carlile — “the incomparable unicorn legend that is Dolly Parton.” Her surprisingly substantial set-within-a-set included a duet with Carlile on “I Will Always Love You,” (watch, below).
On Sunday afternoon, Carlile said that the idea to have Parton in to cap a celebration of women in music had been in the works for about a year, through emails and, more recently, phone calls. “She called me and said, ‘Hi, Brandi, it’s Dolly,'” Carlile told Variety. “‘I’ll be there if the creek don’t rise.'” She laughed. “I’m like, please, creek, don’t f—ing rise!”
Others who took part in the Saturday evening set included Sheryl Crow and Maren Morris (joining Carlile for “If It Makes You Happy”), Judy Collins (a duet with Carlile of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”), Maggie Rogers, Amy Ray, Linda Perry (easily engaging the crowd in a barely prompted sing-along of “What’s Going On”), Jade Bird, Molly Tuttle, Courtney Marie Andrews, Yola and, of course, the Highwomen, reprising their cover of the Highwaymen’s theme song.
Carlile recounted her efforts to get Parton on board. “It was touch and go for a long time,” she told Variety. “It was like, ‘I sure would like to do that, and if I can, I will. I’ll let you know closer to Christmas.’ Then Christmas came and went. ‘You know, I started my film schedule, and I won’t know until just before, so make sure you don’t announce me.’ So it was like that for a year of just digesting my stomach lining. I was in the studio with the Highwomen and I got an email and it said: ‘Just Because I’m a Woman,’ ‘9 to 5’ and ‘Eagle When She Flies.’ And I was like, she’s gonna do it – oh my God! And then like day before yesterday, she added ‘Jolene’ and ‘I Will Always Love You,’ and I was like, ‘F—!'”
“I love Rhode Island,” said Parton at the start of her appearance. “Me and Rhode Island have a lot in common. We’re little but we’re loud. … I know you’re in love with all these wonderful gals up here, and the men as well. Brandi, I’ve been a fan of hers for several years. My niece introduced me to Brandi several years ago and … when she asked me if I would come and do the festival I said I will do it if I possible can. And here I am.” She turned to Morris and said, “Congratulations on your No. 1 song” (the just crowned country chart-topper “Girl”) — with Morris looking flabbergasted to know Parton keeps an eye on the charts. “This is kind of all about the girls, and I looove being one of the girls. Of course I love my men too. Don’t get me wrong I’ve always had one of my own. I’ve had the same one for 53 years, as a matter of fact. But I love to be up here with all this girl power. I love to see us do good.”
Carlile was shocked by Parton’s last-minute invitation to set on “I Will Always Love You.” “Back in the early days I had a No. 1 song on this back in 1972, I believe,” Parton recounted for the crowd, “and then I did it again in that ‘Best Little Chicken House in Texas’ [her euphemism for “Best Little Whorehouse”; Dolly likes to keep it family-friendly] — it went NO. 1 again. Then Whitney Houston sang it and it went all over the world. But it was just a little song that I felt from my heart. And I’ve asked Brandi if she’ll join me on this one.”
“I said ‘Dolly, yes, I will sing this song’,” Carlile deadpanned.
Carlile’s commitment to Newport is no joke. Introducing the Saturday all-star set, she recounted historic moments, from its connection to the peace movement to Bob Dylan famously going electric. “We all know these things, this is why we’re here,” she told the crowd, “but today on its 60th anniversary, the Newport Folk Festival is going to have its first all-female headlining show. Thank you for being on the right side of history again.”
The following day, Carlile went into detail with Variety about her past and present history with the festival. “I’ve f—ing fantasized about Newport Folk Festival since I was a little kid,” she said. “I knew what it was, when Indigo Girls (her youthful idols) were just dominating here. That was before I knew that this was where Dylan plugged in — and I knew about Judy (Collins’)s set in 1967. My first year to play here, I was so terrified. I think it was 2008. We played at 2 p.m. I didn’t eat for a few days before I played. I couldn’t get past the legacy. Then I kept getting invited to come back. Last year I was like, f— it. I’m not doing any gigs. I’m gonna take the whole weekend and I’m just gonna go to Newport Folk Festival and I’m gonna hang. And that totally changed my life. I got on the board of Newport, and I’ve been working with other people that work behind the scenes at Newport.
“I’m just really fascinated by the due diligence that goes into making the festival 50/50. Always had (aimed for that male-female ratio of acts). They were 50/50 before it was cool. And all of the conscientious discussion, coming from Jay Sweet, about upholding the festival’s legacy — it’s really sacred to him, and I’m really proud of him in that way. He has this really cool balance of steward of a really important legacy, but also host; he wants everybody to party and have a great time. And those two things I think take years off his life every year he does this festival.”
Carlile’s lineup for the Saturday set encompassed everyone from female bluegrass pickers in their 20s to Collins, who turned out to be quite a raconteur on stage, on subjects ranging from current politics to her inability to remember a lot of her heyday (she didn’t do drugs because she was afraid it would interfere with her drinking, she said, adding after the big laugh that she wasn’t joking). “Judy was already coming, but I reached out to do ‘Both Sides Now’ as a duet,” Carlile said. “She showed up yesterday at rehearsal and just blew our minds. She had that ‘Resist’ necklace on and I was like, oh no, I can’t believe this woman.”