The Highwomen Are the Group Country Music Desperately Needed
Over the years, the female voices in country have been few and far between, but have made quite an impact on their own to infuse verve and spark into the country music scene. Still, the impact of women in country music has been largely unrecognized next to their male counterparts, and other than Miranda Lambert’s Pistol Annies, we don’t see all-female country supergroups, not since the days of Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt’s multiple Grammy award-winning album “Trio.” The aptly named Highwomen brings together four of the bigger female names in country and Americana. Brandi Carlile, who released one of the best albums of 2018, “By the Way, I Forgive You,” steers forward with the rugged edge of country, embodying all its rawness and unblemished sincerity, while Maren Morris puts on a bubblegum print, and redefines country pop stylings with enough flair to make the biggest stretches of genre-hopping strike a chord. Natalie Hemby has been a songwriting force behind such artists as Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves. And Amanda Shires might as well be the mascot of country, folk and Americana music, going beyond the role of just singer-songwriter to play the fiddle, unhinged and passionate in both her role in the Texas Playboys (the band for the legendary Bob Wills) and her solo career. Much in the vein of Cash, Jennings, Nelson, and Kristofferson’s Highwaymen supergroup, the four of these ladies have joined forces and released a self-titled album. “The Highwomen” is a pointed and poised album that exalts all the feminine energy in contemporary country.
The Highwomen have spoken openly about how their collaboration is ultimately more of a movement than just a band, so it’s no great surprise that they begin with a bold statement of intent. There are few bands that go so far as to give a song the same title as their whole act, as it’s a risky invitation for easy reduction. For the Highwomen, however, it’s a natural move, consistent with the spirit of the whole undertaking — whimsical, fearless, and purposeful. So, the album begins with an eponymous opener, on which the singers take turns presenting verses to the same tune of the Highwaymen’s 1985 title track. On the original song, “Highwayman,” Nelson, Krisofferson, Jennings, and Cash presented anecdotes of a robber, sailor, dam builder, and astronaut, respectively, together capturing the collective ethos of the everyman who lived on the edge. For the Highwomen’s variation, Carlile, Shires, and Hemby all take turns, giving quick flashes of the different aesthetics and personalities that blend into the group’s sound. Carlile takes on the role of a refugee mother from Honduras, fleeing to give her family a better life. Shires plays a healer vilified and persecuted during the Salem witch trials. Maren Morris is absent in the solo sections, instead English singer-songwriter Yola, who stands out with a delivery more steeped in soul traditions, takes her place. Yola’s character in the song is a freedom rider who lost her life in the pursuit of racial equality, and Hemby’s is a preacher at a time when women were seen as below teaching vocations, her fate sealed in the same Colorado river as Jenning’s character. As in “Highwaymen,” each character lives a risky life and reaches an unfortunate end, but this time the struggles are colored by fight for equality, and for justice in general. The Highwomen’s ode the The Highwaymen’s outlaw country classic is built with warm and lush orchestration that gives it an entirely different, and fittingly feminine feel. The final verse, in which the four singers unite in harmony expressing their collective struggle and shared spirit, is a poignant moment. “We are The Highwomen / Singing stories still untold. We are the daughters of the silent generations.”
The Highwomen go on to reframe another reference to the same era, this time the television series “Designing Women,” nodding to the theme song’s phrasing in a way that’s cleverly subtle. “Redesigning Women,” as the title would suggest, is in the long tradition of protest proclivities expressed through mobilizing folk anthems, but in this particular case, with a playful self-awareness that functions to reframe the whole affair as more of an open-ended, coy but provocative suggestion than a sanctimonious belting exercise. The most priceless line is “Changing our minds like we change our hair color,” delivered in a way that draws attention to traditional feminine stereotypes, but turning them into a thing of empowerment. By the point of “Loose Change,” the band has settled into a natural chemistry with a track that sounds like a regular country song, and a particularly good one. In this song, and throughout the album, the Highwomen wisely take a measured approach, with most songs featuring one main singer, sometimes two, but all in the chorus. And the choruses are what make the album, with four of the most distinctive and impactful voices in country and Americana music singing in a unison that displays their individual attributes and their collective harmony at once. On “Crowded Table,” when they all sing, “I want a house with a crowded table / And a place by the fire for everyone,” it rings true.
The Highwomen deliver on “My Name Can’t Be Mama.” Having already established their playful, yet determined attitude, they pull off an old-fashioned ditty with a poise that never seems like it’s reaching for signifiers, but sounds like a well-staged celebration of all the aspects that made the genre memorable in the first place. “If She Ever Leaves Me” could be understood in the broader sense, with the feminine object generally the more favored lyrical subject matter, but considering the band’s decidedly feminist manifesto, and the fact that the central figure is Carlile, who fancies the ladies, lyrics like “If she ever gives her careful heart to somebody new / Well, it won’t be for a cowboy like you” strike like a rallying cry, in a scene largely dominated by a peculiarly goofy strain of machismo.
Amanda Shires has spoken of how her being a mother motivated her to take up a project like this, as she felt there needed to be more examples of inspiring women in country. “My Only Child” is the most direct expression of this sentiment, a touching song overall, but especially so because of the context. The sounds get spirited on the Highwomen’s revised version of Ray LaMontagne’s “Heaven Is a Honky Tonk,” with the quartet, joined by Sheryl Crow, showcasing a camaraderie that simply can’t be faked. It’s particularly twangy, and designedly so, with lyrics about a “southern accent,” in a chorus with the fitting emphasis at all the right points. Of course, no proper country album is complete with at least one semblance of a drinking song, but the Highwomen deliver theirs with a twist. “Cocktail and a Song” is a buzzed, sentimental track about mortality in which an ailing father tells his daughter over a bottle of Tequila, “You’ve always been your daddy’s girl / Nothing’s gonna change that now.” In classic country fashion, the band ends the album with “Wheels of Laredo,” a song penned by Carlile for Tanya Tucker’s latest album “While I’m Livin’,” a record produced by Carlile and Shooter Jennings. A nod to the times when artist’s regularly recorded their own versions of classics, Carlile puts her signature stamp on the song, while the others unite in the harmonies, reviving the textures and arrangements that have dissipated in contemporary music.
“The Highwomen” is an album by four of the finest female voices in country, uniting in a grand gestalt. The band strikes a fair balance between main singers, and joins together in a way that blends so well that just a few seconds of a chorus should communicate the winsome integrity, spirit, and informed musicality of the project at large. The songs are all well-crafted and instantaneously appealing, with their voices making an example of the simultaneous variety and unity in today’s country scene, and ultimately making the type of impact that you would expect from a title like “The Highwomen.” Country would not be half as powerful of a genre today, if it weren’t for the classic women of Nashville, and everywhere in-between, women like Dolly Parton, with whom the Highwomen recently ceremoniously performed. With a feministic approach, the Highwomen highlight and champion the often overlooked female force in country, and turn out a set of memorable, catchy songs tailored for 2019, earning them the title of “supergroup.”
“The Highwomen” is available Sept. 6 on Apple Music.