The Highwomen Create Musical Manifesto on Collaborative New Album

The Highwomen Create Musical Manifesto on Collaborative New Album

by BEVERLY KEEL

The day after the final curtain came down on the 2019 CMA Fest, a group of tired but excited industry leaders gathered at the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum for a premiere of the much-anticipated debut album by recently formed Country Music supergroup The Highwomen—Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires.

In the current climate for female artists in Country Music, this album isn’t just wanted, but truly needed by women. This Elektra Music Group project, which will also be the subject of a documentary, could serve as the soundtrack for the fight for equality for women in Country Music. “We’re still finding out what this means,” says Morris. “It just gets more special every day.”

The night before, Morris had exploded onstage during her prominent solo slot at Nissan Stadium during CMA Fest, where she surprised the crowd by inviting Carlile out to join her in performing “Common.” Less than 24 hours later, when Morris and Carlile gathered with the two other Highwomen to unveil the album, it received numerous standing ovations.

The Highwomen haven’t created a musical manifesto of rage and raised fists, but a beautiful and harmonious message of love, laughter and open hands welcoming all to the party. The music has a classic, timeless Country feel and uses poetry, storytelling and empathy to create the sound of freedom.

The 12 songs explore in vivid color the nuances of being a woman and feature common themes such as motherhood, resilience, loss, heartache and humor. (It even includes “If She Ever Leaves Me,” which may be the first openly gay song in Country Music.) It’s an audio diary of the pressures and presents of being a woman in 2019. Introducing the single “Redesigning Women” to the audience, producer Dave Cobb said, “This song represents four badass women who cannot be contained.”

The lyrics of “Redesigning Women” include: “Redesigning women/Running the world while we’re cleaning up the kitchen/Making bank, shaking hands, driving eighty/ Trying to get home just to feed the baby.”

“The whole concept is a movement, a really joyful movement,” Carlile says, “and we’re inviting women to join us in elevating voices of women in Country Music. We’re actively inviting men to get on board with The Highwomen and become a part of the solution to the lack of representation for women in Country Music right now in a celebratory way. It’s catching and it’s really inspiring to see.”

Morris describes the group’s music as equal parts grit and grace. “It’s not in any way, shape or form a rage record against men. It’s incredibly warm and inclusive.”

Of course, supergroups are nothing new in Country Music. Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt released the album Trio in 1987 and Parton, Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette released the album Honky Tonk Angels in 1993. The influence of Parton, the common thread among both of those trios, can be heard throughout The Highwomen.

But The Highwomen took much of their inspiration—and name—from The Highwaymen, which featured Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson. Indeed, the women pay homage to the men with an updated version of their iconic hit, the Jimmy Webb-penned No. 1 song called “The Highwaymen.” They rewrote the song to instead feature women and presented the new lyrics to Webb. Shires says, “He said, ‘Y’all did it so well. You don’t need my help at all. I give it an A-plus.’”

His review was spot on. The haunting reinterpretation, which also features singers Sheryl Crow and Yola, creates a new meaning and impact, especially in today’s political and cultural environment.  As Shires notes, the original song gave The Highwomen a structure to say something individually and collectively about the rarely told stories of women in history.

“The Highwaymen were a ghost band,” Carlile says.  “Essentially, they died. Waylon Jennings was a dam builder who fell in the concrete and died, and Willie Nelson was a bandit who was executed. Kris Kristofferson was a sailor and Cash just drove a star ship for some reason.

“We got it in our heads to rewrite the theme based around ways that women have been persecuted throughout history and have died for a cause greater than themselves, and so we created characters,” Carlile says. “We created the character of a woman fleeing civil war, trying to get her kids to safety; a character of a doctor convicted of witchcraft and executed in the Salem witch trials; a Freedom Rider killed on a Greyhound bus ride; and a preacher executed  for preaching the Word and heresy. We all come together with a message in the end. It’s a heavy song, but I think it’s needed and beautiful in a big way, too.”

It was Shires who had the initial vision to bring the women together to create this music with a message. Shires, who is also a respected fiddle player, has released six solo albums, including the critically acclaimed 2018 album To the Sunset, and has won a Grammy and two Americana Awards, both for her solo efforts as well as her work with Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s The Nashville Sound.

“She walked up to me in a bar one day and said, ‘My name is Amanda Shires and I want to start a band with you called The Highwomen,’” says Carlile, whose sixth studio album, By the Way, I Forgive You, won three Grammys earlier this year. “I said, ‘We need to call Maren Morris,’ and we did. Maren jumped into this circus immediately, without even hesitating to consider the fact that she had her own album just ready to come out.”

Since winning CMA New Artist of the Year in 2016, her career has soared to new levels, including 10 additional CMA Award nominations and a 2019 international tour that features her Grammy-winning song “My Church,” as well as hits such as “The Middle” (a collaboration with Zedd and Grey) and “80s Mercedes.”

As producer, Cobb, asked Hemby to submit songs for the project. It was a logical choice, given that she has co-written hits including “White Liar,”  “Automatic” and “Only Prettier” for Miranda Lambert, “Pontoon” and “Tornado” for Little Big Town, and “Rainbow” and “Butterflies” for Kacey Musgraves.

“When Natalie sent us, in my opinion, our best song, she didn’t just write the narrative for The Highwomen musically; she actually cultivated the sound of what we are,” Carlile says. So not only did they cut the song, they asked her to complete the group.

The song that captured the philosophy of The Highwomen is “Crowded Table,” which Hemby wrote with Lori McKenna in about 30 minutes.  “I feel like we’re all kind of in the same boat. We want women to be a part of the whole narrative of Country Music,” Hemby says. “We want women who are Country Music heroes. And it’s not that there aren’t some great men out there. There are. But we have a lot to say, you know, just besides love songs.”

Carlile says the song uses a table and fire as a metaphor for bringing people together who don’t all think the same things. “We don’t all believe the same things, even in The Highwomen. But we can come to the table, we can break bread, and we can go out into the world as activists and as women and get behind our own causes, and then come back together and realize that we come home to each other at the end of the day. That’s what families do. That is a really beautiful sentiment everybody needs to hear right now.”

“I think it’s probably one of my proudest songs to be a part of,” says Morris, quoting the lyrics. “‘If it’s love that we give, then it’s love that we reap.’”

Photo Credits: Header Photo and Bottom Right Photo- Alysse Gafkjen, Cover Photo – Electric Machine/CMA

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