REVIEW: The Highwomen (Elektra/September 6, 2019)
Cut to the chase. It’s all been done. I’m late to the game. Something I never do is read other reviews before doing my own, but this time was different. The debut album by The Highwomen, the wondrous band consisting of Amanda Shires, Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby and Brandi Carlile, was highly anticipated, and even before it dropped it was already being dissected and discussed all over the internet. You couldn’t escape it if you tried. I wasn’t about to review this one without a hard copy of the album and I wasn’t able to get to it on release day due to previous commitments, so now, I’m in that situation where most people have read the reviews, they’ve listened to the music and chances are, anything I say could just fall by the wayside.
What does that mean for me? I skip doing the review? I get extra “creative” so someone pays attention to me? None of the above. I pretend I wasn’t late and write honestly, as if I wrote it the minute it dropped. There is that exception though. I read quite a few reviews this time. I was interested to know if anyone thought this was a “bad” album. I’ll save you a lot of time. Nobody I could find thought anything profoundly negative at all. It’s overwhelmingly a critic’s dream. You could move on right now and buy the album, or you could take a few more minutes and hear my take. I can’t say I’m a great writer and you’ll be riveted, but I can promise my thoughts will be different than anything you may have read so far. At least I believe so, based on everything I’ve seen.
The band is a nod to the outlaw country supergroup, The Highwaymen, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. There are parallels. Whereas the male version were musicians on the fringes of country music, The Highwomen are four extraordinarily talented singer/songwriters who each bring something unique to the group, yet they are united in their drive to keep females in all styles of country music moving forward. Outlaws and feminists. I suppose you could say they’re both bands that came together to get their beliefs and values out to the world via some mighty fine music. The Highwaymen were trying to “keep it country”, and at least in the way they thought country music was supposed to sound, they accomplished that. The Highwomen, in my humblest of opinions, may have stepped their particular objective up a notch or two.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Depending upon what any one individual views as “country”, The Highwomen probably have it covered. Each member of The Highwomen is, in their own right, a superstar, and like The Highwaymen, that didn’t hurt their chances at “making it” right out of the gate. People were going to rubberneck the second they saw that this group of humans formed a band. The best weapon they had for their debut, self-titled album was their producer, Dave Cobb. A multiple-Grammy winner and nominee, he has worked with quite a list of notable artists, including Jason Isbell, Anderson East, Dolly Parton, The Oak Ridge Boys, Chris Stapleton and Shooter Jennings. The Highwomen were in great hands.
The first track on the album is “The Highwomen” , which is actually The Highwaymen’s song, “The Highwayman” rewritten by Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires and Jimmy Webb. Webb wrote the original 1985 song for The Highwaymen and he, Carlile and Shires took it and reworked it from the perspective of four valiant females who fought and died for what they believed. Americana/Roots Rock singer Yola brings her unbeatable vocals to this tune as a 1961 Freedom Rider, shot to death as she protested segregation of public buses.
In addition to Yola, every member of the group takes on another role in the song. You’ll hear about a doctor executed during the Salem witch hysteria, a woman from Honduras seeking asylum who is killed trying to cross a border and finally, a female preacher. The message comes out in the lyrics. “We’ll come back again and again and again and again and again” which lets the listener know that the bodies of these brave women may be gone, but their spirits will forever be here, ready to inspire future generations of females.
The lyrics are powerful. The idea behind the song is brilliant, but is it a good song? Is it pleasant to listen to? Yes. It’s incredibly easy to listen to. Backing vocals are provided from guest artist Sheryl Crow. Simply put, it’s an impressive title track.
Video courtesy of WRCF World-Radio-Country-Family and YouTube
Let’s take a breath now. I said this review would be different. It will be. There’s no other way to say it, except to say it. I do not consider myself a feminist. I’m not saying I want to go back to the days where women were kept in the kitchen or anything like that, but you won’t see me out in a crowd with a sign protesting anything or burning any bras. I don’t identify with that kind of thing. I consider myself pretty apolitical. I prefer to remain neutral, especially in today’s world where it seems like everyone is constantly arguing about politics and social issues. I really can’t deal with any of that.
When it comes to music and politics, I generally mentally separate the two. I don’t allow myself to subscribe to it, but I also don’t “ban” musicians that are politically or socially vocal either. I simply decide if I enjoy their music. If I do, I listen to it, and I don’t worry about what they’re doing outside of the recording studio or the concert venue. Some people can’t separate those things. I find it fairly easy. I have a strong desire to just get along with everyone, no matter what their color, religion, sexual orientation or view on the Second Amendment. Me and Rodney King, we probably would have been good friends. I honestly prefer to stay away from anything the least bit confrontational and don’t jump on any agenda bandwagons. I try to like everyone.
When I say I’m not a feminist, what I mean is, I don’t identify with the artists in The Highwomen on a personal level as far as being outspoken about some of the issues they are. It doesn’t mean I don’t agree that women deserve all the same rights as men, because we most definitely do. It just means that I’m not wired to be a freedom fighter. Did that make reviewing this album difficult? Absolutely not. As I’ve said, I have the ability to separate what artists do outside of what I hear in my earphones. Even if the lyrics start leading me down a path toward a certain cause, I will focus on the melody, the arrangement and the sheer creativity of the writing if it’s an issue I don’t necessarily agree on. It’s not my place to judge a songwriter’s personal thoughts.
I suppose it wasn’t necessary to reveal that, but I will overthink every piece of a review for hours. If a review is to be believable. I need to start with me, so I did that. I also must stress that I looked forward to this record just as much as everyone else. I admire the work of all of these artists. I had the privilege of seeing them at the Loretta Lynn Birthday Bash at Bridgestone Arena back in April, where they performed live for the first time publicly, so I knew this album was going to be exciting. I was an early fan.
Back to business. I thought a lot about this record before I sat down to write. I tend to think of each full-length album in terms of a project. Each step, from the very idea of making the album, all the way to someone purchasing the finished product flows through my head. This time, I got stuck on one thing.
I’m a huge fan of liner notes. I always have been. Since I was old enough to read I would pour over every last word on every record jacket in the house. I may not have understood what I was reading, but it didn’t matter, I just thought it all sounded like the coolest stuff ever. This is a great time to say how much I miss the vinyl format. I know it’s back to some degree, but I honestly wish it was still all we had. Never as much as I do today. I picked up the physical copy of The Highwomen at Target and immediately ripped open the cellophane to check out the liner notes. Surprise! I needed a microscope to read these things. Yes, I realize I’m ancient and reading glasses are useful, but trust me, even reading glasses weren’t much help. These words are tiny.
Photo courtesy of Patti McClintic and Think Country
With a full-size LP, even the smallest type never puts this must eyestrain on a person. I might sound like I’m complaining, but really, I’m not. I just want to state a fact. The type is super small and highly difficult to see. What I do want to point out, however, is these liner notes, although microscopic, do kick ass. They give me just about everything I want and need when I tear open a new album. They listed who did what on each track. Who sang lead, background vocals, who played what in the studio, who the guest artists were, all of it.
As I sit here typing this, I am so wishing I could have talked with someone who worked on this album. I have this crazy feeling that maybe a female had something to do with the decision to include every last person who worked on every song. Don’t get me wrong, many albums include session player credits, but many do not. Here’s where I think it doesn’t matter if you’re a female activist or a feminist or whatever you care to call it, most women have a common desire to want to be inclusive. When we work together on something that we’re proud of, we don’t want anyone left out. Not one of these songs would have turned out the way they did without all the names listed. Someone made the executive decision to include them all. I’m guessing it was at least one woman that made it. I may not label myself a feminist, but I sure as Hell would have listed every last player and I would have been the one that initiated the idea.
This was just one of the final steps in what I consider to be a “project”. Truly special records don’t just get made overnight. The hoops are many and there are a whole lot of people jumping through them. Make sure you acknowledge those jumpers. I love it that The Highwomen did that. This may seem like a minor detail and not even worthy of mentioning, but for me, those barely-readable words shouted to me. They were saying I needed to think more about them than their diminutive size. I got the message.
Without writing a novel on each member of The Highwomen, I’ll give you a brief synopsis, because I recognize the fact that not everybody is familiar with them. I learned this when I picked up my CD at Target today and the cashier asked me who they were.
Natalie Hemby is a Nashville hit songwriter. Her work includes Little Big Town’s “Pontoon” and “Tornado”, Miranda Lambert’s “White Liar”, “Automatic” and “Pink Sunglasses” and Toby Keith’s “Drinks After Work”.
Photo courtesy of songkick
Maren Morris’s debut single “My Church” was a number one hit that earned her a Best Country Solo Performance Grammy. She has won several other industry awards for her accomplishments. Morris is currently riding a wave of success with her sophomore album, Girl. She is married to fellow country artist, Ryan Hurd.
Photo courtesy of 90 East Photography and Think Country
Amanda Shires is a singer/songwriter and successful violin player. She has performed with Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit and The Texas Playboys. She has released six solo albums. She appeared in the film Country Strong, playing a musician. She has supported John Prine on tour. Among her many awards was the 2017 Emerging Artist of the Year at the Americana Music Honors and Awards. She is married to Jason Isbell.
Photo courtesy of amandashiresmusic.com
Brandi Carlile is a singer/songwriter who is associated with everyone from Willie Nelson to Pearl Jam. She is a high school dropout who is self-taught on piano and guitar. She is an activist and humanitarian for several causes. She has won multiple industry awards including a 2019 Grammy for Best Americana Roots Song Performance for “The Joke” and also a 2019 Grammy for Best Americana Album for By the Way I Forgive You. She is openly gay and married to Catherine Shepherd. They have two daughters.
Photo courtesy of thecurrent.org
There isn’t much else to know except what I think of the record. I’ll spare you my thoughts on every track because I could talk about them for days, but I will pull the ones that grabbed my attention most, for different reasons.
I’ve already talked about the first track, “The Highwomen”. I love it. It sounds beautiful. It sends a powerful message. It was a brilliant decision to bring in the writer of “The Highwayman” to co-write it. Aside from the sound, my reason for loving this song is different. I’m a self-professed history nerd and any time any artist takes the time to inject historical events into a song it garners my attention. It doesn’t mean I’ll come back to the song again, but if the melody works for me and that historical reference drop is interesting as well, that song hits the jackpot. This one met all the parameters, not to mention the voices were incredible. One of the best on the record easily, whether you call yourself a freedom fighter or just someone who appreciates well-crafted music.
The second track, “Redesigning Women” (Natalie Hemby, Rodney Clawson) is a tribute to all women. Whatever walk of life, whatever era, it’s a simple anthem (with damned good harmonies) that says women have always found a way to make things work with what they have. We’re an inventive bunch. Who hasn’t screwed on a faceplate with a butter knife? We do what we have to do. As The Highwomen say, “halfway right and halfway wrong” but who cares? We keep this planet populated and when push comes to shove, things get done. I’m no bra-burner, but I’m a wife, a mother, a grandmother and I get shit done. I can relate to this one just fine. It sounds good and it is good. This is is why Natalie Hemby is a hitmaker. Paired with fellow powerhouse writer Rodney Clawson, there was no way this was going to fail.
Video courtesy of The Highwomen and YouTube
“If She Ever Leaves Me” (Amanda Shires, Jason Isbell, Chris Thompkins) is another one of those songs that proves Nashville isn’t the conservative monster everybody perceives it to be. This is a song about lesbian love, and while it comes off as a sweet ballad to the casual listener, if one really pays attention, it’s actually kind of funny. I can’t ruin this song for anyone too much by giving away the details. I would just suggest you listen to it. Lead vocals are handled beautifully by Brandi Carlile. Once you’ve come to appreciate the original intention of the lyrics, try some acrobatics with them. Replace the characters with heterosexual people if you want. It works that way too. You’ve seen the scenario in bars. You’ve probably been in one of the positions yourself a time or two. This is just good songwriting. The strings on this track are the best touch ever. An absolute homerun.
If you’ve ever been dumped, you’re going to have to give “Don’t Call Me” (Amanda Shires, Peter Levin) a chance. This is one of those songs that you can listen to on repeat and hear something new every time because of how it was recorded. It’s a group effort that rocks. It’s the ultimate “middle finger in the air”, so-over-you song. Throw the top down, open every window, jump on the highway and crank it up. Hell, if you don’t smoke, light one up and don’t inhale. Just be done with that man (or woman). This is how a really well-produced, well-thought out “get lost” song should be recorded. My pick for best track on the album. It isn’t gorgeous. It isn’t ethereal. It doesn’t rely on perfect harmonies, but it uses every trick in the book to convey a message. Hats off to everyone involved with this song.
Video (audio) courtesy of The Highwomen and YouTube
Sometimes I get hit in the heart by a song, blindsided, actually. I sure wasn’t expecting this, but “My Only Child” (Natalie Hemby, Amanda Shires, Miranda Lambert) is doing that over and over. This is the song I would have written if I was a songwriter. If I ever get the chance, I will personally thank these writers. I am an only child. I am the mother of an only child. I come from these words. It’s not easy. It’s not a world built for only children. This song is a poignant letter of sorts. A mother writing to her only child, acknowledging that she knows the child wishes they had a brother or sister, but telling that child they will be the only one. I was that child. My child was that child. I feel the pain of those conversations in the deepest recesses of my soul every time I listen to this song, like it was all of those yesterdays again. I don’t know if everyone will feel such an emotional connection to these lyrics, but if I can stress anything about this song, please let it be this is a song that is so long overdue. I have been waiting for this my entire life. I had no idea this was on the album. It was a shock. It was a gift. Natalie Hemby’s vocals are pure and honest. I feel a kindred spirit with her after hearing this. It is my new favorite song. The background vocals are full and stunning. This is all quite personal and I apologize for that, but sometimes you can’t stop what’s real.
If anyone is looking for some real traditional female country, you’ve got it with “Heaven is a Honky Tonk” (Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Ray LaMontagne). This is a lilting tune with all the sounds you’d expect to hear in an old time country/western bar. Lead vocals are shared here by Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby and guest Sheryl Crow. This one throws in a whole lot of country stereotypes in the lyrics, things like Jesus, wooden floors, junkies and liars, but not one single country artist name drop. There’s a reason for that and it’s explained in the lyrics, and I’ll let everyone find out what it is on their own. I had to give this one several listens to make sure I liked it as much as I thought I did. I’m not normally real big on that old country sound, but I found this highly enjoyable. I decided this is where production is everything. The vibe of that era was created without it being hokey or too twangy. It’s really pleasant. The merge of then and now is brilliant.
It’s hard to make choices. There are six more tracks on the album. I chose the six that stood out for me. I really liked everything on the record, but the ones I talked about were the ones that I felt spoke to me the most. My reasons will not be your reasons. These women are all gifted. They are all individually talented in their own way and when they came together to form a group it really gave us something special.
I’m asking one thing of our readers. No matter what your political or social beliefs, set them aside. If you wholeheartedly agree with those of The Highwomen or you don’t, try and ignore all of that for the length of this record. Sit down, close your eyes, put on the album and just allow yourself to really listen to it. Put the noise of the world away. Make the music the priority. Hear each individual instrument. Hear every drumbeat. Identify each artist’s voice. Drink in the lyrics. Try and apply them to your own life if you can. Make this project a part of you, because it is a project. Don’t let it end just because its music is already purchased. Just as The Highwomen have said, “we’ll come back again and again and again and again and again”.
The Highwomen track listing:
- “The Highwomen” (Jimmy Webb, Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile)
- “Redesigning Women” (Natalie Hemby, Rodney Clawson)
- “Loose Change” (Maren Morris, Maggie Chapman, Daniel Layus)
- “Crowded Table” (Natalie Hemby, Lori McKenna, Brandi Carlile)
- “My Name Can’t Be Mama” (Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Amanda Shires)
- “If She Ever Leaves Me” (Amanda Shires, Jason Isbell, Chris Thompkins)
- “Old Soul” (Maren Morris, Luke Dick, Laura Veltz)
- “Don’t Call Me” (Amanda Shires, Peter Levin)
- “My Only Child” (Natalie Hemby, Amanda Shires, Miranda Lambert)
- “Heaven is a Honky Tonk” (Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Ray LaMontagne)
- “Cocktail and a Song” (Amanda Shires)
- “Wheels of Laredo” (Tim Hanseroth, Brandi Carlile, Phil Hanseroth)
The Highwomen may be found: