A Seat at the Table: The Highwomen abide multitudes

highwomen

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.