The Highwomen — the collaborative project of Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Maren Morris, and Natalie Hemby — came about as an attempt to address a perceived underrepresentation of female artists in the ranks of mainstream country, particularly on country radio. They’ve copped their name from ’80s country supergroup the Highwaymen, with the “high” in their version denoting “elevated,” not that other kind of high. And they’ve reworked the Highwaymen’s titular song (with the assistance of Jimmy Webb, the man who wrote the original), replacing the single reincarnated soul portrayed in “Highwayman” with a tale of four women — a refugee, a ’60s civil rights Freedom Rider, a preacher, and a healer — who all come to violent ends yet live on.
That song, and the group’s first single, “Redesigning Women” — an anthemic romp through the capacities, proclivities, foibles, and tribulations that come with being a woman — have already garnered the Highwomen plenty of attention. Those two statement songs kick off their self-titled debut; what follows is a collection of modern, distinctly country music that revisits classic genre themes, with a twist here and there (notably the Carlile-voiced gay country song, “If She Ever Leaves Me,” and “My Name Can’t Be Mama,” which expresses a need for the occasional bout of maternal irresponsibility).
“Don’t Call Me” is a kiss-off slice of twangy, railroad-beat fun, while “Heaven is a Honky Tonk,” written by Carlile, Hemby, and Ray Lamontagne, is a stone-country tribute to the Highwaymen and other musical titans. On the slower, more sober side, Shires’s heart-tugging “Cocktail and a Song” details the fleeting moments shared by a daughter and her gruff father before his imminent demise, and “Old Soul,” co-written and sung by Morris, has a sweeping, melancholic grandeur to it; the song, and Morris’s powerful performance of it, might be the album’s most impressive moment.
“The Highwomen” is truly a shared endeavor. Carlile, Shires, Morris, and Hemby all contributed songs, some written by various combinations of the four; all take lead vocals by turn; and all combine their voices in unison throughout, to thrilling, soaring harmonic effect. But exactly how the Highwomen expect their project to facilitate greater representation of women in country music is unclear; indeed, one wonders whether they themselves will even get mainstream notice or the radio play that success there still depends on. And that may not be because they’re women, but because they’re women making music that’s too country for country radio. Then again, who’d have thought that today’s country would be receptive to the likes of Pistol Annies or Ashley McBryde?
Stuart Munro can be reached at email@example.com.