I first encountered Allison Russell in 2019, when she joined my friends Rhiannon Giddens and Leyla McCalla, along with Amythyst Kiah, to form a quartet of female banjo players whose original songs explored the experiences of Black women throughout American history. The group dug deep into experiences both personal and ancestral, legacies of struggle, resistance and hope, producing a critically acclaimed album for Smithsonian Folkways.
Allison contributed the powerful "Quasheba, Quasheba", inspired by the life of her paternal ancestor who was sold into slavery off the coast of Ghana and taken to a sugar cane plantation in Grenada. For Allison, the project was a transformative breakthrough. Encircled by the sisterhood of her fellow musicians as she connected with Quasheba's story of assault and trauma, she found the strength to open up about her own experience as a survivor of horrifying childhood abuse, unleashing a flood of writing that resulted in her debut solo album, Outside Child.
After two decades on the Americana circuit with her previous bands Po' Girl and Birds of Chicago — the kind of musical existence that offers a devoted community but not mainstream recognition — Outside Child changed Allison's life. And once again, the power of sisterhood was essential. Brandi Carlile heard the record and facilitated a deal with a major label; then came three Grammy nominations and accolades like "Musical memoirs don't come braver, or better."
When doors and hearts and minds are opened by the sheer force of your own truth and history, you understand how powerfully you're connected to the traumas and triumphs of your ancestors behind you and your descendants ahead. There's a joy and a freedom in that lineage of strength and survival, and that joy and freedom is all over Allison's new record The Returner, where she sings:
"I've come ten million miles, ooh, I'm burning I'm a summer dream, I'm a real light beam I'm worthy of all the goodness and the love that the world's gonna give to me I'ma give it back 10 times, people, are you ready? If you think you're alone, hold on, I'm coming"
Hold on. She's here.