The Highwomen (photo by Alysse Gafkjen, PR)
The label of "supergroup" gets bandied about a lot, but The Highwomen really live up to that description — but it's also one of the lesser objectives of this band with a mission. The lineup is amazing: Brandi Carlile, coming off three 2019 Grammy wins thanks to her last album, By The Way, I Forgive You; Amanda Shires, solo artist and a member of Jason Isbell's 400 Unit, Grammy winners in 2018 for The Nashville Sound; Grammy winner Maren Morris, who released her second album, Girl, earlier this year; and Natalie Hemby, who released her debut album, Puxico, in 2017, and is also a songwriter for artists like Miranda Lambert and Toby Keith.
The Highwomen are crusaders for a cause, as well as a highly talented group of singer-songwriters and musicians, juggling a lot of Grammys and other accolades. The four artists came together with the intention of creating an empowering environment for women in country music. It’s an objective that naturally spills over to encompass the ambitions and equal rights of all women in all walks of life, not just music.
The #MeToo movement has also transformed the music industry and the Highwomen's “Redesigning Women” serves as a declaration that the tides are shifting and women's voices will not be silenced — something so clearly evident when the freshly-minted band hit the stage at the Newport Folk Festival in July, bringing Dolly Parton onstage for an unforgettable set.
The idea of the Highwomen was hatched by Shires who, like most female country artists who've ever tried to get a single played on the radio, was tired of the extreme imbalance of men and women added to playlists: the infamous comments by consultant Keith Hill, suggesting that the format's programmers excise women from airplay, spoke to the extremity of the situation.
Shires looked to The Highwaymen, the most definitive all-male country supergroup — Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson — for inspiration. From there, Shires shared her vision, calling on Carlile, Morris and eventually Hemby to come together as a band. The Highwomen made their live debut in April 2019 at Loretta Lynn’s 87th birthday concert and their first full live set as a band happened at the Newport Folk Festival.
The fruits of their collaboration can now be heard on their self-titled debut album. Opening the album is “Highwomen,” a rewrite by Carlile and Shires of the Jimmy Webb's “Highwayman,” a 1985 song which Webb wrote for The Highwaymen’s first collaborative album. A triumphant celebration of the accomplishments of women throughout history, "Highwomen" is a a declaration of resilience. And to make a supergroup even more super, the track features Yola as a special guest vocalist, with Sheryl Crow adding harmonies.
“Redesigning Women" follows, as much of an anthem as Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman" from 1971. On The Highwomen, the quartet delves deeply into women's rights and inclusivity. Unity is the theme of “Crowded Table,” which Hemby and Carlile wrote with Lori McKenna; the breathtaking vocal arrangements on this song is truly a highlight of this record. On “My Name Can’t Be Mama," a honky-tonk ode to motherhood is front and center — but it's the escape from the demands of motherhood that's the witty and inspired key to this track.
Conversely, “My Only Child,” which was written by Hemby, Shires and Miranda Lambert, explores maternal drive in a particularly poignant way. The tender, piano-driven “If She Ever Leaves Me,” written by Shires, Isbell (her husband), and Chris Thompkins, is a love song between women, bathed in secrecy and soaring harmonies. A fractured relationship is the subject of “Don’t Call Me,” written by Shires and Peter Levin. Shires pays tribute to her father on “Cocktail And A Song,” a spare reflection on mortality.
Other songwriters of note who made contributions to The Highwomen include Carlile’s bandmates, Tim and Phil Hanseroth, on the wintry “Wheels Of Laredo," and Ray Lamontagne, who worked with Carlile and Hemby on “Heaven Is A Honky Tonk.” Dave Cobb produced the album at Nashville's RCA Studio A.
The Highwomen have redefined what it means when four gifted solo artists join forces. The reasons for their union and the message in their music is at the core of Carlile, Shires, Morris and Hemby's intent. The Highwomen is far more than an excellent country album: It's a touchstone moment in the never-ending struggle for women's rights, empowerment, equality and inclusion. Significantly, it's a wake-up call for certain county music radio programmers: How can The Highwomen be ignored?