A Seat at the Table: The Highwomen abide multitudes

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Institutionalized misogyny at a glance: In 2019, exactly one woman has had a #1 single on Billboard’s Country Airplay charts; that would be Maren Morris and her self-reliance anthem “GIRL.” That’s not quite to say that women have been completely absent from the radio; if nothing else, they have provided fruitful subject matter for many of country music’s most venerated dudes and bros. Jason Aldean had a chart-topping hit with “Girl Like You,” where he assures his beloved that she has lips like cherries, eyes like diamonds, and a “body so gold”— shopworn imagery that does little to distinguish the object of his affection (emphasis on object). There’s also “Good Girl,” a #1 from Dustin Lynch that rhapsodizes his beloved as an “angel,” a “keeper,” and “the kinda thing you gotta lock down.” Such songs make it disturbing plausible that Morris, in addition to being the lone female to summit the charts, is also the only contemporary country hitmaker who has ever actually spoken to a woman before.

This dismaying situation was hardly lost on Amanda Shires, a key player in the Americana scene. Absorbing plenty of country radio from the confines of her tour bus, she was mortified by the gender disparity; so many gifted singers and songwriters ignored, so many everyday stories left untold. She aimed to do something about it, and like many aspiring revolutionaries before her, her plans involved starting a band. The Highwomen, a homegrown problem-solvers caucus, includes Shires, Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, and, curiously enough, Maren Morris, whose chart success is the exception that proves the rule. Their self-titled debut was produced by Dave Cobb, and features low-key support from the likes of Jason Isbell, Sheryl Crow, and Yola. It’s a handsome set of songs, carefully designed to honor the voices and lived experience of women. If country radio ever gets wind of it, there may be pandemonium at the realization that ladies are more than red lips and diamond eyes. And if it doesn’t, the credible excuses are very limited indeed; surely by intention, The Highwomen have made a record that’s not just pure of heart but unerring in craft. Maybe there’s a good reason not to play this on the radio, but lack of merit ain’t it.

The group’s name references The Highwaymen, a mid-80s posse made up of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson, back when each was still on’ry but on the downward slope of their commercial prime. Their theme song, the Jimmy Webb-penned “Highwayman,” mythologized rugged and manly men doing rugged and manly things, like brandishing weapons and working in construction. The Highwomen opens with a revisionist take on the song (co-credited to Webb), where all the macho stuff is replaced with a whispered history of the women who’ve been blotted from the public record— the waterlogged witches of Salem, Freedom Riders gunned down in their prime, traveling preachers with hellhounds on their trail. In robust harmony, the Highwomen declare themselves “the daughters of the silent generation,” standing in solidarity with women of the past whose quiet courage is too often left unsung. It’s obviously meant to be the band’s walk-on music, but at least two additional songs qualify as unofficial manifestos: There’s first single “Redesigning Women,” an unruly singalong where the Highwomen celebrate femininity with equal parts earnestness and jokes, sounding obviously proud of both (“when we love someone we take ‘em to heaven/ and if the shoe fits we’re gonna buy 11.”) You could also make a case for “Crowded Table,” a hymn of union, as the third bullet point in their mission statement; it’s a song about rolling up your sleeves to build the inclusive utopia Sleater-Kinney used to dream of, though the Highwomen cast it in the warmth of domesticity (“I want a house with a crowded table/ and a place by the fire for everyone”).

These songs triangulate the band’s politics, but it’s to their credit that The Highwomen isn’t all rallying calls and declarations of intent; they’re just as happy to show as to tell, and their material sticks up for the women who live in the margins of gender politics but don’t have the luxury of thinking about them every second of every day. (Possible summary of the album’s themes: Women have shit to do.)  In “My Only Child” (co-written with GOAT of GOATs and spirit-Highwoman Miranda Lambert), they linger over the particular pain and gratitude of the mother whose table isn’t quite as crowded as she’d like; it’s a quiet-storm tearjerker for the mom who wanted a big family but wouldn’t trade her lone progeny for anything in the world. There’s also Shires’ “Cocktail and a Song,” a fiddle-led wake written following her father’s diagnosis with terminal illness, which captures the particular tenderness between dads and daughters (“you’ve always been your daddy’s girl, nothing’s gonna change that now”). What The Highwomen argues implicitly is that stories like these are legion; so why don’t we hear them more often? As if to assert just how multitudinous the stories of women really are, the record ends with a Carlile number called “Wheels of Laredo,” an Old West set piece that recalls some of the conscious myth-making of The Highwaymen; hearing these women acquit themselves so ably in the hardscrabble outlaw vein almost feels like a victory lap. The song also appears on While I’m Livin, a Tanya Tucker comeback album co-produced and largely penned by Carlile. She’s spoken about wanting the song to become a kind of modern outlaw anthem, one that many different performers can sink their teeth into. The Highwomen literally set their own standards.

Any one of these dozen songs is tuneful enough to be a radio hit. Ironically enough, their fortunes on the charts may be hampered by the fact that they’re so grounded in traditional country craft. The Highwomen studiously resists the gurgling electronics, trap rhythms, and studio sheen that characterize Nashville’s pop vanguard, instead favoring a warm austerity that hearkens back to the values of the outlaw movement; it’s a sound that was mapped out by Hemby, long one of country’s most valued songslingers, and captured in an appealingly organic production from Cobb. “My Name Can’t Be Mama” begins with sawing fiddles that roll into jaunty barroom piano, Western swing with a hard edge; “Heaven is a Honky Tonk,” meanwhile, is an amiable, old-timey Gospel sway. These are sturdy constructions, rooted in decades of country record-making, but they aren’t museum pieces; for one thing, they’re too funny to be stodgy. The joke quotient is high, not least on “Don’t Call Me,” an uproarious dismissal where Shires tells her ex exactly where he can lodge any further inquiries or requests (“1-800-Go-To-Hell”). The classicist songwriting makes the one-liners sparkle, and it also helps cast at least some of these Highwomen in a new light; no one benefits from this context as much as Morris, who gets to show sides of herself her fine solo albums only hint at. Her “Loose Change” is one of the record’s understated delights, exhibiting a knack for taking plainspoken cliches and assembling them into something surprisingly barbed (“I’m gonna be somebody’s lucky penny one day/ instead of rolling around in your pocket like loose change.”)

Their embrace of country formalism makes it all the more striking when The Highwomen tweak the formula a bit, and a few songs pull the rug right out from under you. “If She Ever Leaves Me,” sung by Carlile but written by Shires and Isbell with Chris Tompkins, is a classic country infidelity song with a twist: The dude thinks he’s a couple drinks and a well-placed pick-up line away from sweeping a woman off her feet; he’s too dense to know he’s barking up the wrong tree, something the song’s narrator explains with wry understatement (“that’s too much cologne, she likes perfume”). Step back from it and you can hear the song as a meditation on abiding mysteries and multitudes. “No one you can name is just the one thing they have shown,” an old Joe Henry song posits, and The Highwomen bears witness. Just listen to “My Name Can’t Be Mama,” a tender and funny reminder that a woman is more than the sum of her children. “It’s not that I don’t want to, I just don’t want to today,” assures a loving but frazzled mom; just the kind of complicated admission for which The Highwomen have created safe harbor. They’re one of the only groups who would speak such things out loud; but they know as well as you do that they’re not alone.

Always Been in My Nature: Josh Ritter’s history of violence

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Like Martin Scorsese and Cormac McCarthy, Josh Ritter is drawn to histories of violence. In songs about misbegotten wars and gun-toting vigilantes, he’s traced the gnarled roots of American bloodshed, untangling the particular strains of solitude and exceptionalism that give birth to sainted renegades and self-justifying killers. These themes are well-documented in the folk tradition, and Ritter presents them in all their dread and allure. Consider a song like “The Temptation of Adam,” where two lovers fumble to make a life together in the shadow of the atom bomb, its imagery suggesting that the instinct to unleash carnage looms large over even our best intentions and purest inclinations; it’s emblematic of Ritter’s dogged chronicle of our collective heart of darkness. Consider also a composition from his album So Runs the World Away, where Ritter rummages through the haunted graveyard of American song and story for scenes of brutality and vengeance, assembling them into stomach-churning pastiche. The title of the song: “Folk Bloodbath.” In it, Ritter sounds like Indiana Jones coming face to face with the flesh-melting power of the Ark of the Covenant: A committed scholar and folklorist, he’s dug too deep and seen too much to return unrattled to the land of the living.

Fever Breaks—Ritter’s 10th studio album—opens with the kind of song he was born to write; not merely a continuation of his excavations, but one of the deepest digs yet. “Ground Don’t Want Me” is a gunfighter ballad, belonging to a folk lineage that encompasses both Marty Robbins’ big-iron epics and Guy Clark’s wistful revisions. Ritter inhabits a man living under a curse (“you’ll never get to heaven, son, so go to hell real slow”), fated to roam the Earth as an unbeatable quick-draw. No matter how many impossible, hopelessly outgunned situations he puts himself in, he somehow always blazes his way out and leaves a pile of bodies in his wake (“for every man a box, for every hole a rose”). He becomes a kind of ghost, wandering from town to town weighed down by his murderous guilt, envying the many men he’s sent to peaceful rest but unable to find it himself. The song reveals a writer who’s all but unequalled at finessed metaphors (“I’ve stacked the deck, I’ve held a dead man’s hand so many times”) and mordant prose (“in every town the brokenhearted rang their steeple bells”), but it’s his moral clarity that cuts deepest; Ritter’s gunfighter is being eaten alive by sin and shame, and he’s resigned to the fact that his past has prescribed his future, that the blood he’s shed has stained his soul. (Devotees may find it rewarding to imagine that this is the same boastful gun from 2007’s “Mind’s Eye,” brought low by time and conscience.)  Later in the album, Ritter reckons with an even ancienter tradition in his hardscrabble performance of “Silver Blade,” a song he originally wrote for Joan Baez; it’s a murder ballad about a maiden who escapes her villainous captor only by lodging a knife between his ribs, then using the same blade to dig the man’s unconsecrated grave. The lyrics include an insouciant forensic account of the deceased’s worm-ridden body, corporeal evidence of a toppled tyrant and lawless justice. It’s a mythology of violence rendered in flesh and bone; it establishes Fever Breaks as another folk bloodbath.

It might almost be unbearable were it not also exhilarating—a robust and freewheeling record that’s unlike any he’s made before. For that you can give much of the credit to folk hero/rock and roll warrior Jason Isbell, who produced the record in Nashville and plays on it with his well-decorated band the 400 Unit. Their most obvious contribution is muscle, and in “Old Black Magic” they provide the headliner with the most raucous moment of garage-rock mayhem in his entire catalog; he sings himself ragged just to be heard about the din of the guitars and the bleat of an organ. Yet Isbell and his troupe are as much about brains as brawn, and what makes them so symbiotic with Ritter is how nimbly they can adapt to the needs of his rich, varied songwriting: The 400 Unit crunches and grinds on “Losing Battles,” skips and gallops across “On the Water,” conjures dark storm clouds and ominous flashes of lighting on the sinister and dramatic “The Torch Committee.” Boon accompanist Amanda Shires, a blessing to every record she’s on, gives “Silver Blade” its sharp edges through flinty fiddle playing, while the band digs deep for both groove and twang on the loping “A New Man.” For all the ground covered here, Isbell’s most critical effect is to bring focus: Fever Breaks feels clean and compact with its 10 songs in 45 minutes, almost the opposite of Gathering’s rambling generosity.

The depth and breadth of these performances are the backdrop for wide-ranging Ritter originals that interrogate folk forms and elucidate all the lessons he’s learned about our appetite for destruction—one of the most significant lessons being that the true violence is the inner violence, the most rancorous battle the battle against the self. Ritter pines for rebirth in “A New Man,” and over the din of “Losing Battles” he casts the pursuit of justice as both a noble calling and a fool’s errand (“sometimes the righteous win,” he sings—but most times…). That same song suggests a history of violence encoded in human DNA, situating these calamitous mythologies under the Mark of Cain; “it’s always been in my nature to be the beast,” Ritter admits, facing down the man in the mirror like Nick Lowe did in “The Beast in Me” or Richard Thompson in “The Rattle Within.” Elsewhere, Fever Breaks studies the violence of separation. “I Still Love You (Now and Then),” one of Ritter’s most brutally understated divorce songs, finds a lovesick man chronicling the wreckage of his life as though describing the ruins of a battle field. But perhaps the greatest lesson of Fever Breaks is that violence to others is always, ultimately, violence to the self. “The Torch Committee” is the album’s dramatic fulcrum, a political allegory narrated in detached deadpan and outlining step-by-step the ways in which fear is weaponized to divide a people from itself (“sadly it’s the awful truth/ it’s them or us, it’s them or you”). And in “All Some Kind of Dream,” Ritter surveys the state of our crumbling ideals through the eyes of the immigrant and the refugee; the wayfaring stranger and the kids in the cages: “There was a time when we held them close/ and weren’t so cruel, low, and mean/ And we did good unto the least of these/ or was it all some kind of dream?” It’s a psalm of lament for a country that’s lost itself in an abattoir of its own making, but in the closing “Blazing Highway Home,” Ritter dares to dream there’s a road to peace somewhere, in this world or the next. It’s not much to go on, but when even hope can seem like a losing battle, it may be just enough for now.