For more than sixty years, a sleepy town on the coast of Rhode Island has been a draw for lovers of music. Newport is the home of the first two ongoing music festivals in the world, with the jazz festival being five years older than the folk. The pull of the town is overwhelming but confusing at first glance. It does not seem like the kind of place where legends tread and magic happens, and yet every year at the end of July that magic takes hold.
The grounds of Fort Adams State Park, where the festival is held, is a picturesque setting to be sure. It’s a typical fort built on the coast during the nineteenth century with walls at differing heights, canons and stone walkways. Nothing about this place strikes you as special on first glance, unless you know, and if you know you’ve already been there, most likely a few years in a row if not many.
Newport Folk Festival has a long and storied history of being a place of wonder, magic and surprise. Dylan went electric in 1965, Kris Kristoferson got his start, Pete Seeger founded it. The year of 2019 was no different in terms of being historic. The entire weekend was effused with the spirit of 1959 and you could feel Mr. Seeger making it happen all over again.
The magic started on Friday with a lineup that had everyone excited. As you spoke to people through the weekend, Friday had been the day many were looking forward to the most as the new group of Brandi Carlile, Marren Morris, Amanda Shires, and Natalie Hemby known as The Highwomen were making their debut as the headlining act on the Quad stage that evening and Phil Lesh & the Terrapin Family Band headlining the Fort stage. Saturday and Sunday’s headliners were mystery/surprise acts that Newport is famous for the last few years, so no one knew what to expect, except that it would be something special.
Other acts on Friday included Sheryl Crow, Warren Haynes, Kacey Musgraves, Liz Cooper and the Stampede, and Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real. It was easy to see why Friday was the early crowd favorite. The magic was just starting though as the Fort stage was sparsely attended to end the night but the women at the Quad stage packed them in. Brandi Carlile and company were joined by Yola at the start and end of the set and had Sheryl Crow join them in the middle. They were backed by The Twins, Jason Isbell and a few others so the band of course exceeded any and all expectations. The songs from the album, as well as a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” were powerful and the crowd could have stayed there all night if they wanted to continue playing. The Highwomen kicked off the weekend for Brandi, who was easily the MVP of the weekend and showed it’s time women should have a more hands-on involvement in festival season going forward.
It felt as if the voices of festivals past were making sure that the diamond jubilee of this festival would be just as incredible as the rest. We were all being called back Saturday by what was to come. There were rumors swirling through the day about who was going to show up for the headlining set which had simply been labelled ♀♀♀♀: The Collaborative and was known to have been curated by Brandi Carlile. Sightings of artists such as Judy Collins were reported through the day along with mysterious black SUVs being driven straight to the artist area. It was still spell binding when Dolly Parton walked out on stage to join The Highwomen, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Jay Sweet came out to tell us how the set came to be. After the festival ended last year, Brandi Carlile made a joke about being able to do what Jay does in curating the sets. Jay, in turn, handed her that challenge. The result was ♀♀♀♀: The Collaborative. The set was the first of its kind at Newport. It was the first time women headlined the Fort stage, which Brandi was very excited to announce to the crowd after saying ” The Newport Folk Festival has had a habit of being on the right side of history for all of its 60 years.” It was the first time a headlining set had been curated by a woman, let alone a gay woman. ♀♀♀♀: The Collaborative is exactly what it sounds like at the highest caliber of talent. Brandi Carlile not only delivered but blew expectation away. The list of performers included The Highwomen, Yola, Sheryl Crow, Courtney Marie Andrews, Rachael Price and Bridget Kearney of Lake Street Dive, Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls, Lucy Dacus, and Maggie Rogers.
It was a bevy of riches for the crowd who felt like they were never able to catch their breath with every new guest coming out. Finally it was just the Highwomen on stage who began an a cappella version of “Eagle When She Flies” only for Brandi to stop everything and tell the crowd that “the incomparable unicorn” would be coming out. As soon as that was said before Brandi could utter the words the crowd erupted as a bright yellow suit strode on to the stage with a smile as wide as the sky and a “Howdy Folks” could be heard coming from the one and only Dolly Parton.
The crowd was electric; something more accepted at Newport in the days since Dylan went so. The five started the song over together to the hushed packed Fort stage crowd. Dolly delighted everyone with stories between songs about her awkward wedding night with her husband before “Just Because I Am a Woman” and her jealousy of a bank teller before “Jolene.”
A special performance of “I Will Always Love You” as a duet between Parton and Carlile left a puddle in the crowd from all the tears that were shed. It was a moment that could only happen at Newport. The rest of the crew from the set came on stage to let us all go off into the night singing “9 to 5.” The crowd danced its way to the parking lots but the real questions on everyone’s mind were: “How could this possibly be topped?” — “Why are we even coming back tomorrow?”– “Who could possibly be a better get than Dolly?”– “Are they bringing Pete back from the dead?”
Never miss a Sunday show.
The Fort stage was one powerhouse after another on Sunday. The tradition of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band opening the stage is one that never grows old. They had a few guests join them this year and later in the day provided the kids tent with a Second Line. The questions from the night before still lingered all through the day. What was the headliner set going to be on the Fort? It was simply billed as “If I Had a Song: A Pete Seeger Tribute.” It was the festival’s 60th anniversary and Pete Seeger would have been 100 years old. It’s hard to think of anyone alive or dead who could possibly do any justice to the gravity of the moment.
The day continued like many other Sundays on Newport. The crowd was a bit slower but so content. The sun blazing down on Fort Adams was intense but we were all too happy to notice as we lazily moved from stage to stage not wanting to miss a single moment of action. By the time the heat began to break, it was time for the main attraction on the Fort stage. Volunteers and staff had begun to pass out booklets with lyrics to songs for the set. It was being said that it was going to be a sing-a-long type set with the songs being a collection of famous folk and rock songs to be performed. Once again, Jay Sweet came out to address the crowd and told us that we were once again going to have a very special guest joining us. No one was prepared for Kermit the Frog and honestly it was probably the only way that you can try and top Dolly Parton.
Kermit came out and sang “Rainbow Connection,” to be joined by Jim James from My Morning Jacket and Janet Weiss, making her first appearance post Sleater Kinney about half way through. Once again, not a dry eye could be found in the field. The set moved forward from there to Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” sung by Benmont Tench, The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” sung by Trey Anastasio and Rachel Price, the traditional “We Shall Overcome” sung by Yola and The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer” sung by Brandi Carlile and Alynda Lee Segarra, and many more. Each song was sung by a different group of people who had either appeared at the festival that weekend or are long-standing members of the Newport family.
Mavis Staples, along with Hozier and Our Native Daughters thrilled the crowd with “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.” The high water mark of the set might have been when Robin Pecknold, Eric D. Johnson, and James Mercer began “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” only to have Judy Collins herself come out near the end of the song and finish it with them. Judy then told a story about hearing that song for the first time from Stephen Stills and saying it wasn’t going to win her back followed by a story of seeing Pete Seger play the festival and how much he cared about it. Colin Meloy along with The Milk Carton Kids had the biggest sing a long of the set, other than Kermit, with “This Land is Your Land.” All good things come to and end though and the set finished with the traditional song “Goodnight, Irene!” with all the performers being led by Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, one of a couple of people who can say they were at Newport since almost the beginning.
As the crowd filed out of the fort for one last time in 2019, you could see that everyone’s faces said they would be back again next year. The Fort calls to us all. You just need to listen. Don’t worry, one day you’ll find it. We’ll all be there, the lovers, the dreamers and me.
Words by Lauren Byrnes & Bryan Lasky
Images: Bryan Lasky