Album Review: The Highwomen’s Debut Challenges Country Music Norms

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The Highwomen – Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Maren Morris, and Natalie Hemby – eponymous album is a refreshing alternative to the often male-dominated contemporary country music scene. The supergroup, a brainchild of Shires and Carlile, was originally imagined as a female counterpart to the Highwaymen (comprised in the mid-1980s of the genre’s then biggest country music stars: Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson). However, rather than identifying as a band, the Highwomen self-describe as a “collaborative movement,” where anyone can be a Highwoman.

The album, releasing on September 6th, kicks off with the title track “Highwomen.” Penned by Carlile and Shires, the song reinterprets the 1985 single “Highwayman,” substituting fates that traditionally befall women to the pirates and outlaws in the original. Singing from the point of view of an immigrant, a healer, a freedom rider, and a preacher, each woman contributes a verse as “the daughters of the silent generation.” In the spirit of collaboration, Jason Isbell plays guitar, while Sheryl Crow provides background vocals. The song sets the stage for the rest of the album, bringing the voices of those whose stories go untold to the table. 

The track is followed up with the single “Redesigning Women.” The title, a play-on-words of the term “designing women” (wherein women are seen to devise nefarious schemes or tactics) is written by Hemby. The song describes the hectic tasks that the modern woman juggles day-to-day. However, with lines like “changing our mind like we change our hair color” and “if the shoe fits, we’re gonna buy eleven” the song shortchanges itself, succumbing to stereotype where it could have been innovative. While the topic of work/life balance is relatable, the concept itself is certainly not groundbreaking. 

Highlights include “Loose Change,” “Crowded Table” and “If She Ever Leaves Me.” “Loose Change,” a song about a relationship where one half of the couple feels their value isn’t being appreciated, is an earworm that will not relent. With lyrics like “I want a house with a crowded table/and a place by the fire for everyone,” “Crowded Table” reiterates the concept of The Highwomen. 

Finally, “If She Ever Leaves Me,” written by Shires and Isbell, is a true standout. Taking the lead vocals, Carlile sings about a couple in a bar, where one half of the couple watches a man eye her partner (“I see you watch her from across the room/Dancing her home in your mind”). While the listener may initially presume the couple to be a man and a woman, ultimately the singer speaks directly to the male character, singing “if she ever leaves me it won’t be for you.” 

With a few setbacks, The Highwomen’s debut ultimately confronts many norms of traditional country music. With perhaps future collaborations, it is exciting to anticipate who else may be included in the Highwoman movement. 

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