The Highwomen is a new collaboration featuring Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Maren Morris, and Natalie Hemby. Carlile and Shires, both outspoken liberal feminists in the hugely male-dominated 21st-century country music space, met several years ago and became fast friends. When Carlile’s newfound clout as an award winner (six nominations and three wins at the 2019 Grammys), she and Shires were able to pivot that friendship into a project and an album, bringing longtime Nashville songwriter-singer Hemby and rising star Morris into the fold.
The album itself crackles with energy, as the four women and a host of collaborators are clearly enjoying working together. Sometimes that results in songs that are flat-out fun. But since the group was formed directly in response to the lack of female representation in mainstream country music, there’s a hefty dose of more serious material as well.
That is apparent with the album’s opener, the group’s de facto theme song, “Highwomen”. Carlile begins the song, inhabiting the role of a woman who left Nicaragua with her family during the late 1980s to head north. “Every one of them, except for me, survived / But I am living still.” Shires picks up the thread, singing as a 17th-century healer who was executed for being a witch. “The bastards hung me at the Salem gallows head / But I am living still.” Then it passes to guest vocalist Yola Carter, as a Freedom Rider in 1961. “And when the shots rang out I never heard the sound / But I am still around / And I’ll take that ride again, and again, and again.” The song itself is quiet and tense, with just acoustic guitar, shakers, and violin. By the end of the song, the whole group is singing in harmony (with Sheryl Crow in the mix as well, audible in backing vocals in the song’s coda), resolving that “We’ll come back again, and again, and again.”
Things brighten up considerably with second track and first single “Redesigning Women”. The quartet harmonizes their way through the relaxed classic country-style song, with cheesy but fun lines like, “breaking every jello mold”, “changing our minds like we change our hair color”, and “running the world while we’re cleaning up the kitchen.” Over a twangy electric guitar riff and omnipresent organ chords, the song shows the group having a blast both embracing and poking fun at female country clichés.
The fun, upbeat songs are scattered throughout the record in just the right places to balance out the more straight-faced tracks. Maren Morris’ “Loose Change” is another 1970s-inspired song, where she realizes her current relationship is crap and resolves to get out. “I’m gonna be somebody’s / Lucky penny someday / Instead of rolling ’round in your pocket / Like loose change.” The rest of the band shows up in the chorus to add rich harmonies. “My Name Can’t Be Mama” is a honky-tonk ode to shirking your motherly responsibilities for just a day. There are a lot of excuses for why the band members can’t handle the job that day (hangover, on tour, hating mornings), and a lot of late-song justifying that they enjoy being mothers most of the time. They just need a break.
Shires wins the unofficial contest for the most fun song, though, with “Don’t Call Me.” In it, she admonishes an ex not to call her again when he gets in a jam. “Didn’t you say you outgrew me / When you chose to up and leave / So don’t call me!” The extended outro finds Shires offering spoken advice to this person. “Call 1-800 Go to Hell / There’s always been someone else”; “Call your mom she’ll fix your mess”; “Lean on your other ex / I know y’all still text”; “Lose my number, and don’t call Brandi!”
Shires and her husband Jason Isbell pen the piano-dominated “If She Ever Leaves Me”, a wistful love song about a lesbian love affair. Naturally, the out for years Carlile gets the lead vocal. Our singer notices a person checking out her girlfriend in a bar and proceeds to explain why said girlfriend would never leave her for him. “It might last forever / Or it might not work out / But if she ever leaves me, it won’t be for you.”
Morris’ “Old Soul” is a wide-open spaces type of song with a huge chorus and wonderful harmonies. Its expansive, nearly six-minute length gives the song time to breathe, especially among all of the get-in, get-out classic country style songs. Hemby, Shires, and Miranda Lambert’s “My Only Child” is affecting in a different way, an unabashedly emotional song about being a single mom with a single child. Hemby’s vocal performance is excellent, hitting the right combination of proud and sad as she reflects on trying to hold on to her daughter as she gets older and older.
But it’s Shires and Carlile who take over again to close out the album, with a pair of serious affecting songs that are completely different. Shires’ “Cocktail and a Song” is about spending time with her dying father. “Don’t you let me see you cry / Don’t you go grieving / Not before I’m gone.” It’s sad and beautiful, and Shires’ fiddle accompaniment and Carlile’s harmonies add to an already impactful song.
Meanwhile, “Wheels of Laredo” from Carlile and her longtime bandmates Tim and Phil Hanseroth, is a story about the Texas-Mexico border, where the storyteller longs for a woman on the other side of the Rio Grande. It’s a song that isn’t overtly political, but our current political situation hangs over the track like a cloud. It’s also steeped in local landmarks, referencing Laredo’s Guadalupe Market Square and the Jamboozie Music Festival. It’s a strong finish to the record, not as emotional as the previous song but simultaneously not as downbeat, either.
Supergroup-style collaborations are often hit and miss affairs. A lot of the time, a group that sounds like a dream project on paper ends up being disappointing in practice. This is not one of those times. While The Highwomen may not quite live up to its individual members best work, the group and their various collaborators and guest stars all bring strong songs and enthusiasm to the project. They’re having a lot of fun, but the specifically feminist bent of the group’s outlook helps focus the album as well. The Highwomen is worth a listen for any fans of these artists individually or as a sampler for all of them.