Back in 1985, four of country music’s biggest stars (Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, and Waylon Jennings) joined forces to create The Highwaymen, a country supergroup. These four men were some of the pioneers of outlaw country and their releases as The Highwayman garnered a platinum album, a #1 country hit, and a Grammy nomination. Now, in 2019, four women have come together to create The Highwomen: Maren Morris, Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, and Natalie Hemby. Country music competes with hip-hop as the genre and music culture that is most controlled by men and wrought with misogyny. On their eponymous debut album, The Highwomen reject restrictive and misogynistic tropes of traditional womanhood and show why they are some of the most talented artists in the music industry right now.
The opening track, a sort of auditory montage of different powerful narratives about women throughout history, is one of the most stunning tracks of the year. Brandi Carlile, who won three Grammys earlier this year, kicks things off her with her trademark haunting vocal and rich songwriting. The best part of the track is when Yola gifts one of the most emotional and soulful vocal performances of the year as she recounts the story of the women who were Mississippi Freedom Riders. The simple chorus, “I’ll take that ride again,” is effective in the way it concisely conveys the almost otherworldly perseverance of women across cultures and societies. Understandably, the instrumentation and overall production is purposefully bare to highlight the loaded lyricism, but the following tracks pick up the slack.
Two of the album’s pre-release singles, “Redesigning Women” and “Crowded Table,” still sound just as fresh as they did months ago. The former is rollicking ode to the new age woman who refuses to subscribe to the rules of our patriarchal society. The latter is a brilliant take on the “seat at the table” phrase that has dominated our cultural conversations in recent years. Instead of wishing for a single seat, The Highwomen sing of a “crowded table and a place by the fire” for women every shape, size, race, nationality, and class. On “My Name Can’t Be Mama,” The Highwomen tackle the balancing act of motherhood and their respective careers, and on “Old Soul” they lean into the dreams of endless possibility of childhood and the memories that made them. “Old Soul” also features an incredible instrumental break towards the end. Remember, The Highwomen are vocalists, instrumentalists, songwriters, and everything in between.
Sonically, the album remains in the realm of traditional country music with occasional flourishes of Americana vocal stylings (courtesy of Brandi Carlile) and pop-driven melodic structures (courtesy of Maren Morris). In an interview with Apple Music, Amanda Shires said “I want to get in the door, and I want our band to get played on country radio. And once we get in the door, I want to hold it open.” Country radio has been under intense scrutiny for the way it basically ignores women. If you’re name isn’t Carrie Underwood or Miranda Lambert and you’re a solo female country artist, you probably won’t get much airtime. And even those country music icons have noticeably struggled to get radio hits from their most recent releases. All this is to say that the choice to remain in the traditional country sonic space was an intentional choice. And it works well. This is easily one of the most interesting and rewarding country albums of the year; The Highwomen absorb any audience in their harmonies and educate all listeners with their beautifully crafted lyrics. This needs to be the record that moves the needle for women on country radio.
Key Tracks: “Highwomen”; “Croweded Table”; “Old Soul”