The Ryman Auditorium's 130th anniversary coincides with the 150th anniversary of historically Black Fisk University's Jubilee Singers. The two Nashville institutions are separated by the delineations between country and gospel music, now evolving beyond a past in which, as recently as five years ago, the venue had a sign on its lower level awning reading "Confederate Gallery."
However, via the soulful and transcendent testimonial of a modern Nashville resident -- world-renowned multi-instrumentalist and intensely empathetic, Montreal-born multi-instrumentalist Allison Russell -- the space between Music City's past and future was sanctified on Tuesday evening. The musical sermons of not just Russell but the Grammy-winning Fisk Jubilee Singers and mother-daughter performers O.N.E The Duo reigned supreme in moments as much defined by the holy gospel as they were ethereal alchemy.
The vaunted venue on John Lewis Avenue has heard Johnny Cash proclaiming that he'd "Walk The Line" to show his love to his wife, June, to Wynonna Judd, recently elevating her mother, Naomi, to the heavens via magnificently acknowledging that "Love Can Build A Bridge."
However, Allison Russell revealed that her track "Quasheba, Quasheba" -- recorded with Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla and Rhiannon Giddens in her quartet Our Native Daughters in 2019 -- was a song that she named after her African ancestor. It preceded onstage musical magic, unlike anything that has likely ever happened at the Ryman.
"We are one human family; faith, strength, and hope are our birthright," stated Russell. She then switched from clarinet to banjo, summoning all the gospel and R & B echoes awoken by the early solo set by the Fisk Jubilee Singers and O.N.E. the Duo.
"It felt like a wall of protective Black sound, an army, a fortress of ancestors protecting us. I've never experienced joy like that, on that song," Russell's band guitarist, New Orleans native Joy Clark, said of the performance. "That level of spirituality is how the Ryman should feel, forever, for Black people singing out ancestry,"
The Fisk Jubilee Singers, conducted by their three-time Grammy-winning conductor Shannon Sanders, backed Russell on the song.
"The curse of violence and bigotry can be broken. We are the ones we have been waiting for," noted Russell.
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Not just as of late, but over the past six years, she has been a vocal activist on the side of progressive political norms remaining in social conversations. Russell's post-COVID decision to embrace her status as a 20-year veteran artist as a leader of the reclamation of Black sounds from America's white-defined history has yielded many incredible moments. This event may have been the most notable.
In 20 years, Russell -- whether recently as a solo artist or in her past as a member of the music groups Po' Girl, Birds of Chicago and Our Native Daughters -- has officially released somewhere in the neighborhood of 170 songs. Her catalog has delved into everything from Carolina Chocolate Drops-retrofitting of timeless pop to bluegrass standards, gospel bridging into more secular tones and the banjo's reclamation as an instrument brought to America by Black hands.
On June 28, she played less than five percent of that catalog of beloved material.
Her set followed the Fisk Jubilee Singers, led by Paul T. Kwami, who breathed concert chorale-style life into Negro spirituals and soul ballads.
Of note, the Fisk Jubilee Singers' takes on quintessential gospel songs like "Good News" and "Old Time Religion" put versions from Sam Cooke and the live recording of Stax's 1973 "Wattstax" festival on alert in regards their excellence.
Russell followed for an hour. Each of her tracks was roughly ten minutes long, including spoken interludes that saw the Grammy-nominee deliver homily-style soliloquies to the crowd in attendance.
Hearing Russell, joined by the SistaStrings duo of Chauntee and Monique Ross, plus virtuoso guitarist Clark, is one of emergent-into-the-mainstream music's great pleasures. Thus, looser than usual versions of tracks including the set opener (and "Outside Child" album-included) "Hy-Brasil" and critically-acclaimed set-closer "Nightflyer" showcased the point and counterpoint interactions developed in a quarter-year of constant playing between Russell on the banjo, Clark on the acoustic guitar, plus the Ross sisters as violinist and cellists. Add in the Fisk Jubilee Singers' euphoric, holistic presence as the set's vocal made it a transcendent experience.
On her version of the 2019 Our Native Daughters track "You're Not Alone," Russell began to sing in her Montreal-native French. Given the nature of elevated spirituality achieved during the evening -- and if you were unaware -- it could be described as if she were speaking in tongues.
Describing the evening in total would require coining a term from a gospel hymn not sung at the storied venue on June 28: After three hours of performances, peace flowed like a river at the Ryman.
Allison Russell feat. Fisk Jubilee Singers setlist
4th Day Prayer
All of the Women
You're Not Alone
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Allison Russell, Fisk Jubilee Singers bring gospel with soul to Ryman