The Highwomen

The Highwomen

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The Highwomen Review

by Stephen Thomas Erlewine

Amanda Shires came up with the idea for the Highwomen as she listened to country radio while touring America in support of her 2016 album My Piece of Land. State after state, she heard a lack of women on station after station, so she devised the notion of creating a supergroup that would address this problem directly. Shires found no shortage of collaborators. In short order, Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, and Natalie Hemby joined her to form the Highwomen, a group whose name offers a punning send-up of the Highwaymen, the biggest country supergroup there ever was. When Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson formed the Highwaymen in 1985, they were in the twilight of their years, but the Highwomen are all at the peak of their popularity and creativity, which gives their eponymous 2019 debut a defiantly electric kick. It doesn't hurt that The Highwomen is conceived as an explicitly political album, either. As its lead singles (and opening tracks) "Highwomen" and "Redesigning Women" make plain, the album is designed to reflect the complex realities of modern women, a perspective that's notably absent on country radio at the tail end of the 2010s. If the singles hit the nail precisely on the head, the rest of the record is a bit looser, alternating between spruced-up honky tonk and reflective ballads. Shires, Carlile, Morris, and Hemby seamlessly trade verses and fall into harmonies but, better still, their sensibilities mesh elegantly. None of the singer/songwriters alter their distinct voices -- it's possible to hear Carlile's flinty, plaintive lyricism, Hemby's clever turns of phrase -- but the Highwomen take pains to place the collective over the individual. Witness "If She Ever Leaves Me," a yearning same-sex love song: it's soulfully sung by Carlile, who has identified as a lesbian throughout her career, but written by Shires and her husband, Jason Isbell, along with Chris Tompkins. "If She Ever Leaves Me" signals the warmth and empathy that flows through The Highwomen. When the Highwomen sing "My Name Can't Be Mama," it's because they're not solely mothers; they're balancing their desire to have a family with their career, their loves, their sense of self, themes that unite the 12 songs on the album. The message, which is implicit nearly as often as it's explicit, may be at the forefront of The Highwomen, but the record's resonance lies in its deep emotions and sense of craft. The craft isn't incidental, either. Their shared skills as writers and singers provide the supporting evidence to Shires' conceptual thesis: if country radio doesn't want to play music this good, what's the point of radio anyway?

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