Review Summary: Rosie the Riveter with renovations.
Although a study was published on the topic earlier this year, it doesn’t take much research to come to an obvious conclusion: Country music is greatly, greatly lacking in gender parity. Back in December of 2018, the Billboard Hot 20 Country Charts featured an all-male top twenty for the first time since 1990, despite the critical acclaim of many female country artists, such as Kacey Musgraves and Margo Price, during the calendar year. In 2000, women held 33% of songs on the country airwaves, but by last year that number had dropped down to 11%. In the study, women in country music said that they were often told by executives that “If you want to improve station ratings, remove the women” and “We only have space for one female on the roster.” Even when a woman would make it on the charts, the odds of the song passing the bechdel test are rare, as the songs often have to be man-centric. The Highwomen, a country supergroup made up of some of its brightest women, decided to face not just one of these issues, but to tackle them all head-on in their brilliant self-titled debut album.
Formed by Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Amanda Shires, and Natalie Hemby, the quartet of women also brought in a number of high talent artists and writers, including Jason Isbell (Shires’ husband), Yola, Sheryl Crow, Ray Lamontagne, and countless others. Taking on a sound that’s as much modern, gritty country as it is seventies rock, the group tackles topics from motherhood to love between two women to death and, in the vein of great country classics, love and alcohol. The title track is a rewritten cover of the original “Highwayman” (the original country supergroup composed of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson) serves as an effective thesis statement for the project. The song has been rewritten to tell stories of women who have historically died due to prosecution, including a Honduran asylum-seeker attempting to cross the border, a doctor who was killed during the Salem Witch Trials, a freedom rider (sung by Yola, who faces additional challenges breaking into country music as a black woman), and a woman preacher. Discussing issues of immigration, racism, and sexism in blunt terms in a genre dominated by conservatism shows that The Highwomen are here to not only break barriers, but to explain what barriers need to be broken.
That isn’t to say that the album comes off as preachy or that it is giving these women the burden of educating people (mainly men) who are not aware of these struggles. The songs are not coy or forgiving. They simply tell stories that women of all kinds would be able to empathize with. In a New York Times feature this past week, Carlile describes the band as a movement and way of banding together women across the country. She says that “It’s really important that the lack of representation for women in music doesn’t come across as some bougie, elitist problem.” The lack of representation and respect for women in country music is essentially used as a metaphor for the struggle of women across the country and around the world. Even the songs that come across as slightly more preachy, such as “Redesigning Women” and “Crowded Table” come across as intentionally so. They sound much like protest songs from the seventies, not calling out in anger, but calling for a coming together, not a wrenching apart.
Of course, many of these messages would be lost if the music itself wasn’t notable. The band takes on a classic sound, a modern version of old-school outlaw music that, again, women never had the opportunity to partake in. The album also rarely falls into the trap of many supergroup albums, as this truly feels like a collective piece of work. Trade-off of verses is found often, harmonies between the four main members plus guests are abundant, and it is a mesh of all the artists styles. Carlile leans on Americana, Morris on the more pop side of country, Hemby an incredibly in-demand songwriter across the board, and Shires is a skilled fiddle player with fame in the outlaw and country rock scene. This truly feels like their
album, as opposed to a few individuals coming together and dropping seperate tracks.
“My Name Can’t be Mama” is a honky tonk, fiddle driven romp with multiple artists trading off vocals and paired harmonies on the bridge and chorus. “Don’t Call Me” is a classic outlaw country song, even featuring spoken word and slight effected vocals a la classic Johnny Cash. Powerful ballads, which are Carlile’s forte, are not left out either, with the incredibly moving “Cocktail and a Song” and closing track “Wheels of Laredo” featuring gospel and church elements. It seems fitting that, on an album about breaking boundaries, one of the clear highlights is a song about a pair of in-love cowgirls. “If She Ever Leaves Me”, co-written by Isbell and primarily lead by Carlile, is a gay love song that that warns a male suitor “If she ever leaves / It’s gonna be / For a woman with more time / Who’s not afraid to let her dreams come true.” The song is playful, sounding almost like a drunken bar song, equally sarcastic as it is romantic.
The major fault of the album is something that it’s hard to even fault it for. Along with a bit of a lack of sonic variation across the project as a whole, The Highwomen falls into the trap that many country albums do: a lack of consistency in quality. “Loose Change” is a fun little song where Morris sings about not being valued by a man, which fits the message of the album, but also isn’t necessarily a rarity in country music. “Heaven is a Honky Tonk” sings the praises of down-home South, something that isn’t exactly lacking in country music. While the songs aren’t necessarily bad, they just don’t quite stand up to many of the more powerful moments on the album. But again, this is hard to fault the band for. It is not their job to educate us or to lead a revolution - They’re allowed to just write some fun music as well. Representation is about equity, meaning that these women should be able to write the songs that men have been writing for decades in the genre. It’s not expected for men to lead a revolution with every song - Just as they should be able to find parity in airwaves, women should be able to find parity in the types of songs written.
On the title track of the album, there is one very deliberate change from the original “Highwayman” single. The original is about one soul shared by a man, which is reincarnated again and again. The original version ends with “But I will remain/And I'll be back again, and again and again and again and again”. In the new iteration, Carlile, Morris, Hemby, and Shires do not share the same soul. However, they do share the same spirit, and they share that spirit with women around the world, women who have been knocked down and disenfranchised. With that in mind, their version of the song ends with a slightly different message, and one that encapsulates what The Highwomen
are all about.
But we will still remain
And we'll come back again
And again, and again, and again, and again