The Newport Folk Festival has made more than its share of music history since its founding 60 years ago. And it did so again this weekend, as women artists were in the spotlight, comprising the first-ever all-female headlining collaboration, organized by Grammy-winner Brandi Carlile.
“And it’s time!” Carlile said on stage, taking part in a set that would feature Maren Morris and Sheryl Crow, singer-songwriter Linda Perry, and even a performance by Judy Collins, who first played Newport in 1963.
“Is this the coolest thing ever? There’s so much estrogen up here!” Crow said.
But the session’s biggest star wasn’t even on the bill. Brought on as a surprise guest was country star Dolly Parton. “Me and Rhode Island have a lot in common – we’re little, but we’re loud!” she said.
“CBS This Morning” co-host Anthony Mason spoke with Parton just after she’d been sneaked onto the festival grounds and into her trailer, where only her secret code name, The Eagle, was on the door.
“I came in and I had a big scarf on and, you know, I was all hidden,” she said. “I had my sunglasses on. And I felt so funny, like being sneaked in!”
Parton sang a duet with Carlile, who had invited her to the event: “I didn’t charge ’em any money for this one,” Parton said. “I’m just doing this as a fun thing for me, and hopefully for the audience and for Brandi and the girls.”
When asked why she wanted Parton at the festival, Carlile said, “I wanted Dolly because I feel like she has been the consummate and ultimate feminist, but beloved by all different kinds of people. All they see when they look at Dolly is her heart.”
Including all the women artists on stage, like rising star Maggie Rogers: “As a songwriter, as an entrepreneur, as an icon, I just find her – I have goosebumps, nervous. I’m just so excited!” she laughed.
For her surprise set, Parton was backed by The Highwomen, a new country supergroup that made their debut at Newport. The band includes Carlile, Morris, songwriter Natalie Hemby, and Amanda Shires, who wanted to break ground for women in country music.
“The question was, what could I do in any kind of way, small way to try to help?” Shires said.
So, she approached Carlile with the idea for the band.
“And we started talking about how to include other women and how to make it less of a band and more of a movement,” Carlile said.
“A movement to accomplish what?” asked Mason.
“I think it’s really the old Chinese proverb that says that women hold up half the sky. They also tell the story of half the human race. And when that’s not represented in the arts, then half of our stories aren’t getting to our little girls. And I think that’s not a temporary or a menial problem. That’s a really big problem. The arts help us define ourselves.”
“Is it a scary idea in some ways?” Mason asked.
“I don’t think it’s scary when you’re in a group,” Hemby replied.
Morris added, “We were all scared when we started to hear the mixes, ’cause we were like, ‘Oh God, this is gonna be something.'”
The Highwomen’s debut album drops in September, but they already have their anthem: their first single, “Redesigning Women,” with which they hope to break into the country charts.
As a solo artist, Morris has the number one country song this week with “Girl,” but she’s the only woman in the Top 10.
“I want to celebrate my #1 obviously,” Morris said. “And I’m very proud of it. I’m not trying to diminish it … it’s bittersweet, because so many of my friends have to do all the same work I’ve done and can’t get, like, a single spin.”
In The Highwomen, the men play the supporting roles, including Shires’ husband, four-time Grammy-winner Jason Isbell, who’s in the backing band. “I am! I’m a hired gun!” he said.
“So, you’re okay with being in the backing band?” asked Mason.
“Oh yeah, more than OK. I’ve got the tattoo also!”
And in Newport Saturday night, it was the women who had the last word.
Mason said to Parton, “It’s nice to make a statement with all those women out there.”
“Yes, it is,” Parton said. “This is like, women are, you know, kind of coming into their own with their music.”