Allison Russell’s a Proud, Black, and Queer “Outside Child” “[Saving] The World”

The folksy country singer's songs like "Persephone" offer "unrepentant, unconditional joy" to queer and BIPOC listeners, allies, too

In all likelihood, in the history of mainstream-leaning country music, there has never been an album released with the type of intersectional intention that inspires Allison Russell’s June 2021-released LP Outside Child. Russell’s not just an artist who recently made her Grand Ole Opry debut on May 28, 2021. She’s also a biracial, Canadian-born queer woman — and mother — who was adopted and a teenage sexual trauma survivor. Currently, she’s also an empathetic singer-songwriter who among her career highlights has “reclaiming the banjo’s ancestral African-American roots” — as a member of folk quartet Our Native Daughters with Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, and Leyla McCalla — as a notable accomplishment. Thus, this album serving as a beacon of strong yet delicate truth to power for Black people, queer people, and generally people feeling socioculturally or psychologically lost shouldn’t be shocking.

In short, as country music navigates its most creatively dynamic era in a half-century, Allison Russell’s work is similar, yet different in power to outlaw classics from the likes of Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash. Just like traveling to Folsom Prison, wistfully recalling blue eyes crying in the rain, or living life on a starship, flying across the universe divide, she forges bold roads into refreshed realities.

“My album’s name, Outside Child, has numerous meanings,” Russell says, breathing deeply before unfurling one of many deep, personal stories packed into a 20-minute phone conversation on a quiet, leisurely Thursday afternoon. “Foremost, from the biological Black side of my family, my birth-father’s Grenada-based family refers to me as ’Michael’s [my biological father] outside child.’ In Grenada, that’s what you affectionately and lovingly call kids born out of wedlock — it’s a nicer name than bastard. There’s no rejection or derogatory feelings associated with it. Because of that, the term reverberated through my whole body and resonated with me.”

Ultimately, as it associates with her album in general, Russell says, “in so many ways, I am the Outside Child, and there’s no shame in that.” Even deeper, she notes, as it pertains to why she wrote album tracks like the revelatory anthem “Persephone,” she relates one of the so many stories of creating links outside of traditional social situations inspired by survival that resulted in unrepentant, unconditional joy. For example, at the age of 15, while living as a runaway from her then Montreal home due to being sexually abused, she fell in love with her first girlfriend.

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