Allison Russell's a Proud, Black, and Queer "Outside Child" "[Saving] The World"
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.
"[My adopted father] would've killed me, or I would've killed myself," she recalls. "Persephone" itself, as a song, unfurls like profound poetry underpinned by cool folksy, countrified pop guitar licks and a shuffling beat. Hearing the singer-songwriter croon, "My petals are bruised, but I'm still a flower / Come runnin' to you in the violet hour / Put your skinny arms around me, let me taste your skin" makes discovering a love that exists outside of heterosexual gender norms sound like tear-jerking, plaintive country and folk-rock music anthems by generations of men and women who have created epic anthems of fairytale, storybook heteronormative love.
As far as being able to access these words in such anthemic form, Russell offers the following explanation:
"As children, or young people, or out queer people, whatever, we all crave the kind of acceptance that once we receive it, it's like a superpower. For me, when I finally achieved that superpower, it gave me the ability to look past all of the superficial differences that have held me back. At this point of my life, I can choose to love a man and have a child. Also, because making that choice doesn't make me any less queer, I can deeply love women and men, trans and non-binary people, all parts of the gender and sexual orientation spectrum, too."
"Recording this album felt necessary, but terrifying. Unpacking compounded trauma and internalized self-hatred is difficult," Russell continues. "Because of the way my life has played out, I knew that, internally, I was the only person loved and supported enough to be able to speak about these issues. I wanted other people who -- like me -- felt trapped by these issues, to know that there are road maps out."
In thinking about how intersectional movements impact not just country music but also the world, Russell's mood brightens. A hearty laugh emerges as she says, "As far as I can tell, there's a Black, queer, indigenous, person of color, and allies coalition whose job it is to save the world. That's the deal right now! White, patriarchal, heteronormative, and supremacist systems have created insidious ideologies and social indoctrination, resulting in violence for our communities."
While still retaining some of that brightness in her voice, she adds a poignant, empowered, and unifying note regarding her album and the power of music, in general. "Life doesn't have to be a story where abusers reinforce violent conditioning on our humanity. I want everyone to be as f***ing lucky as I have ended up being surrounded by people who have helped me change the negative perception I once had of myself. We all deserve to have a better awareness of who we are and what our value is positively. At the end of the day, we're infinitely powerful and able to change the narrative of, well, anything if we use empathy, intentionality, understanding to claim our unique power together."