The Highwomen singing women’s stories. They’re not haters. It’s all about inclusivity and love.
Country music radio loves its bros: young, white, tatted, gym-jacked, dirty pick-up with a bottle of something brown under the seat guys that sing about spring break and their ex’s with a heavy snap track on loop. Lyrics are mired in partying and objectifying women. Songs that represent young women with strong identities are sadly few and far between. Enter super group, the Highwomen, whose self-titled album dropped on September 6. The Highwomen are setting out to write relatable songs that anyone can identify with. No male bashing. Just inclusivity and love.
The group is made up of four women who are already accomplished artists: Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, and Natalie Hemby. The group’s name is copped from the iconic outlaw country group (and their song) the Highwaymen. This group was composed of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson. (Not quite bro-country but they did drive around with a bottle of something brown under the front seat.)
The original song “Highwaymen” was solely composed by Jimmy Webb (“Wichita Lineman”). Carlile reached out to Webb and explained the bands concept and the accompanying movement and asked if he was interested in contributing to the reboot. Webb gave the group his personal seal of approval and told them that they were “spot on.”
The album was produced by Dave Cobb and has additional writing credits. Included are Lori McKenna (“Girl Crush”), Miranda Lambert, and Jason Isbell.
(I’d like to clarify that the Highwomen are not country’s first female super group. Pistol Annies, a trio consisting of Miranda Lambert, Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe released their third album, Interstate Gospel, late in 2018. Pistol Annies have won huge critical acclaim. Their work is classical country which doesn’t play well with popular radio. Songs center around restlessness, domestic drama, struggles and moving on. The Annies are more interested in telling women’s stories than keying their ex’s car. Miranda Lambert has joined Highwomen with a co-writing credit for “My Only Child.” Check out the Pistol Annies if you’re not familiar. I’ve included them on the playlist.)
What exactly is the movement behind the Highwomen? Paste Magazines’ Ellen Johnson put it quite eloquently, “Women have just had a tougher lot than men, down to the molecular level, not to mention the societal demands we’ve fought for decades and centuries to shift. There’s no escaping the biological cards we’ve been dealt—there’s only shuffling them, playing them to the best of our advantage and figuring out how to survive the game.”
Country music radio has upheld and reinforced the idea that male artists draw a larger listening audience. The ratio of female to male artists has dropped in recent years. Things are getting worse for women in Nashville, not better.
Researchers at the University of Southern California’s Annenber Inclusion Initiative have studied the gender gap in country music. Despite the breakout success of women like Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, and Kacey Musgraves, women in Nashville are still severely underrepresented. According to the study, only 16 percent of country artists are female and only 12 percent of country songwriters are women.
Billboard magazine reported this past December that for the first time, it’s Country Airplay chart listed no female artists in its Top 20. The researchers from Annenberg say that their report was triggered by the Academy of Country Music (ACM) Awards. When ACM announced nominees in February 2019, not a single woman was nominated for entertainer of the year.
According to the online initiative Book More Women, which charts gender representation across all genres of music, country festivals tend to be around 25% women, with women barely ever holding a headlining spot. (More info on Book More Women below.)
Enter the Highwomen. “Anybody can be a Highwoman. It’s about banding together, abandoning as much ego as humanly possible, holding one another up and amplifying other women every chance we get,” Carlile says of the groups mission. “Shoulder to shoulder. One push, one love.”
Carlile plans to walk her talk. On Wednesday, September 11, less than a week after the albums release, the artist made an announcement on her instagram feed: “I’ve been thinking a lot lately about walking the walk. For me supporting other women has to really mean supporting other women. I reached out to some of my favorite singer-songwriters this summer and asked them if I could open up for them in a few shows. And this is the first one, I will be opening for the great Courtney Marie Andrews on September 23…come out and check us out. She’s absolutely incredible. I hope you enjoy the show.” The band Shovels and Rope responded, “She thinks of the best thing and then does it.” Enough said.
Highwomen is a collaboration in every sense of the word. Shires, Carlile, Morris, and Hemby all contributed songs; some were co-written by various combinations of the four and their own band mates and friends; all take turns on lead vocals. The best of Highwomen is when their voices come together in old-school harmonies. Plenty of opportunities here for goosebumps and a few tears. There’s not just one sound here. What there is is a united reverence for roots country with all its twang and grit. That might make it more subversive than its feminism. It may be too country for country radio.
The backing band is a powerhouse including Carlile’s twins, Tim (guitar) and Phil (bass) Hanseroth, Peter Levin (keys), Chris Powell (drums) and Grammy award winning solo artist and session player, and Shires’ husband, Jason Isbell. My criticism on this record is that there could be more prominent instrument breaks. They are few and far between and are buried when they do occur. Additional songwriters include Maggie Chapman, Daniel Layus, Lori McKenna, Jason Isbell, Chris Thompkins, Luke Dick, Laura Veltz, Peter Levin, Miranda Lambert, Ray LaMontagne, Tim Hanseroth and Phil Hanseroth.
A few friends drop by to add to the project, Yola, Sheryl Crow, Johnny Rodriguez, and Steve Earle.
If the album sounds retro, it’s deliberate. Producer Dave Cobb brought out the 70’s microphones and mixed in mono. This gives the album a nostalgic sound, sometimes the voices sound a little swampy. But the intention is clear.
The album opens with the melodic “Highwomen,” a re-imagining of Jimmy Webb’s original “Highwayman.” This version centers around a strong female stories: a Honduran mother dies helping her family escape to America, a healer is mistaken for a witch, a 1961 freedom rider is killed in Mississippi. “We are the Highwomen/Singing stories still untold/We carry the sons you can only hold.” Country-soul artist Yola joins the quartet. She nails the freedom rider and adds a fabulous layer of richness. She is just so damn good.
My favorite track (so far) is “Don’t Call Me,” a duet with Shires and Carlile. It’s got that classic Johnny Cash honkeytonk groove. Every group needs a good kiss-off song and who better to write it than the cheeky and brass Shires. She co-wrote with Peter Levin. The lyrics are clever. Shires cries, “Call your mom, she’ll fix your mess…call 1-800-Go-To-Hell…somebody else can get this party started.” The groove has a Doors feel to it.
Shires also shines on a slower, tearjerker, “Cocktail and a Song.” The song details a daughter and her gruff father before his death. Shires has a MFA in Creative Writing and the poet in her shines here. “Daddy passed me his bottle of tequila/Said, ‘time’s running out, we’re gonna have to pretend it’s a margarita.” Shires does Dolly Parton proud.
It’s songs like “Loose Change” that prove Maren Morris’s country chops. Her vocal and lyrical skills are stellar. Clever lyrics (“love is not supposed to be played like monopoly” and “loose change, you don’t see my value”) along with a sweet Texas swagger make this song pop.
“Redesigning Women,” has a laid-back old country feel. There’s a few good lines (“A critical reason there’s a population/Raising eyebrows and a new generation”), and there’s some clunkers (“Changing our minds like we change our hair color” and “If the shoe fits, we’ll buy 11”). It was the first song released by the group.
Jason Isbell told Rolling Stone that “If She Ever Leaves Me” came to him on his treadmill. He wanted a “true gay country song” for Carlile. The song is written by Isbell, Amanda Shires, and Chris Thompkins. It’s a stunning song in the best tradition of country story telling. Carlile sings, “If she ever leaves me, it won’t be for you.” Her voice is one of the most dynamic, lovely voices in modern music and it shines here.
Highwomen is a fabulous collaboration. Fiddles, guitars, voices, and collective talent call attention to the beautiful mess that is a woman’s life: relationships, family, work, queer love, straight love. It’s challenge to the country music industry is clear: hear our stories.
Book More Women is challenging the music industry to include female artists in lineups for music festivals. The anonymous Twitter and Instagram account are dedicated to highlighting which festivals are lacking in booking women artists.
A huge thank you to Laura Fedele and WFUV Public Radio for use of photos from the Newport Folk Festival.