When you’re a festival like Newport, anything is possible. You can be home to the live debut of country music supergroup The Highwomen, made up of Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Amanda Shires, and Natalie Hemby. You can be the place where everyone will remember the name Yola Carter for a long time to come. And you can be the place to surprise the crowd with not only an unannounced performance by Dolly Parton, but Kermit the Frog too.
No other festival can promise the immense cross-musical pollination that is realized at this converted fort by the sea: The Infamous Stringdusters with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The Highwomen with Yola. Hozier with Mavis Staples. Dawes with Jason Isbell. Sheryl Crow with James Taylor. Phil and Brad Cook with The Tallest Man on Earth. Judy Collins with Robin Pecknold (of Fleet Foxes) and James Mercer (of The Shins). Kermit the Frog with Jim James (of My Morning Jacket). And Brandi Carlile with Sheryl Crow, Lucy Dacus, Alynda Segarra (of Hurray for the Riff Raff), Linda Perry (of 4 Non-Blondes), Courtney Marie Andrews, Amy Ray, and many, many more.
Brandi Carlile deserves all the accolades for the star power she brought out for her mysterious “♀♀♀♀: The Collaboration” set, but British country-soul artist Yola was the breakout star of the weekend. To be on stage with a group like The Highwomen, for what was their first-ever live performance together (and on the first song of their first performance, no less), is a co-sign like no other. She also got a chance to shine during The Collaboration in a duet with Brandi Carlile. Still, it was the surprise appearance of Dolly Parton that will undoubtedly go down in Newport history. Getting to duet with a musical icon like Parton is a dream for many, and Carlile made it a reality through a duet on “And I Will Always Love You.” And all the surprise collaborators on The Collaboration came out on stage to back Parton on unforgettable renditions of “Jolene” and set closer “9 to 5.”
But Dolly Parton wasn’t the only surprise in store. Sunday’s closing performance, titled “If I Had a Song” in honor of festival co-founder Pete Seeger ,featured none other than a Kermit the Frog and Jim James duet of “Rainbow Connection.” What followed was a revolving door of notable musicians on songs like “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” (featuring Judy Collins, Robin Pecknold, Eric D. Johnson, and James Mercer), “We Shall Overcome” (with Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Rachel Price), “This Land” (with The Milk Carton Kids and Colin Meloy), and more. The backing band for the set consisted of Decemberist guitarist Chris Funk, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench, and Wilco bassist John Stirratt, and former Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss.
One of the best surprises, though, is how Newport continues to defy the boundaries of what some might consider folk music to be. Chris Funk of The Decemberists curated an impressive lineup of music that draws on the music of Ireland, Colombia, South Asia, and more. Our Native Daughters, made up of Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell), reclaimed the banjo for people of color and women. Adia Victoria proudly brought her southern gothic blues to the festival. Kenyan-born J.S. Ondara dazzled the Newport crowd with his voice and heartfelt folk songs about the America he wants to see. Jupiter & Okwess created the biggest dance party of the weekend through their energetic Congolese funk. Even Portugal. The Man kicked off their show with a welcome from a representative of the Narragansett tribe, the Native American tribe that had lived in the area long before European settlers arrived.
Pete Seeger would have been 100 years old in 2019. He famously scrawled on his banjo, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” This ideal is what Newport Folk Festival continues to pride itself on. Throughout its 60-year history, there continues to be no other festival that promises unity and unforgettable moments as well as Newport does. The likes of Brandi Carlile, Phil Cook, and Mavis Staples joining in the fun of other artists’ sets is something that Coachella or SXSW could never deliver on, let alone the appearances of Dolly Parton and Kermit the Frog. As Pete Seeger said, “We’re stronger when we sing together,” and nothing unites more than singing these words into reality:
“Someday we'll find it, the rainbow connection
The lovers, the dreamers and me.”