The Highwomen’s Crowded Table

From left to r: Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby, Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires. Photos by Alysse Gafkjen

In early January, rumors of a potential new supergroup featuring some of country and Americana’s most beloved artists began circulating online. The alleged band was called the Highwomen (a play on the ’80s country collaborative project the Highwaymen) and purportedly included Amanda Shires and Brandi Carlile. 

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The rumors quickly traced back to Shires herself, who broke the news during an interview with Louisville radio station WFPK and subsequently sent ripples of excitement through much of the country music community. What was this Highwomen project, and what were they up to?

Fast forward a few months later and the band — rounded out by Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby — has released its self-titled debut album, which arrived at number one on Billboard‘s Top Country Albums chart. They’ve made the late-night television rounds, contributed a song (a fantastic cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain”) to the soundtrack of the film The Kitchen and led a triumphant, much talked about all-female set at this year’s Newport Folk Festival, which featured appearances from Sheryl Crow, Yola and none other than Dolly Parton. As the year comes to a close, it’s hard not to wonder if 2019 belonged to the Highwomen.

The Highwomen released as the country music industry reached something of a fever pitch in its conversations about the lack of gender equity within the genre (particularly on country radio). Organizations like Change the Conversation and Women of Music Action Network (WOMAN) had, alongside a number of artists, journalists and industry members, done much to push the conversation forward, but there was — and still is — much left to be done. (At press time, Billboard‘s Country National Airplay chart, dated October 12, includes only two songs by solo female artists in its top 25.)

“I do feel like [women] could be treated equally and better,” Hemby says, over breakfast at a café just outside of Nashville. “That’s all I’m really asking for. And that means at country radio. For me as a songwriter, it’s frustrating to see these amazing women artists who are so dynamic but radio won’t touch them. Yet we have 10 Freds on the radio and you can’t tell them apart. It’s getting old.”

So the Highwomen project was an enlivening one not just for its “supergroup” status but for its centering on female voices, which they grounded in the   traditional trappings of a genre that still considers them expendable “tomatoes” on the salad that is country music. (That strangely wrought metaphor is a reference to 2015’s “Tomato-gate,” in which a radio consultant argued that, ratings-wise, female artists were little more than the decorative garnish atop country music’s male-dominated salad.) 

All four of the Highwomen members have spoken frankly about gender inequity in country music since the early days of the band’s existence. They also know full well that the Highwomen project has the power to move the needle. 

Carlile tells American Songwriter, “So many young girls and boys out there are being raised the way I was raised on country music and on country music radio. No matter who you are or what you believe, if you have daughters — if you have a little girl and she’s listening to the radio with you — why not stop and ask yourself, ‘What do I want my little girl to know about herself today?’ Whatever your answer is, check in with what you’re hearing on the radio. If you don’t think she’s getting the message that she’s worthy of then join the Highwomen movement and see if maybe you can help us change it.”

“There’s also the element of four women that have their own solo careers going on simultaneously while starting this project,” Morris says in a separate conversation, calling from a tour stop in support of her recent album GIRL in northern California. “I think people really see how adamant we are about the message behind it. We’re really taking the time and putting our money where our mouth is and not just talking about the lack of women represented in the music industry. We’re really coming together, finding the time to write this record and make the songs and promote it. I think people are moved by the authenticity and the heart of this project.”

The Highwomen LP is a patchwork quilt of female perspectives, threading women-centered narratives through songs about love and loss, motherhood and living single, and domesticity and fame. The individual women of the Highwomen differ in a number of ways, including age, background, genre and sexual identity, and their varying perspectives give the album a sense of well-rounded, hard-earned experience and wisdom. 

“We’re singing songs that have to do with the daily lives and struggles of being women and sisters in this damn world,” Shires says, calling from a tour stop in Denver. “I think when folks hear our music they’re like, ‘There’s my people.’ Because a lot of the material that women are steered to sing in country music is love songs and songs about needing a man or being so cute in my dress. 

“And that’s still fun because those are all parts of our personalities but there’s more to it. There’s a need to hear from women about women either having fun or venting or talking about their babies or the future or climate change, whatever it is. As children, we get most all of our lessons from our mothers. Why can’t we get those lessons and ideas across in country music?”

The Highwomen opens with the track “Highwomen,” a reimagining of the 1985 song “Highwayman” that found Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson inhabiting the narratives of a highwayman, a sailor, a construction worker and a starship captain. Carlile and Shires wrote “Highwomen” with the blessing of “Highwayman” composer Jimmy Webb, who gets a co-writing credit on the updated version.

“It felt like something from the muse,” Carlile says of writing the song. “Whatever that is. The stories just came to me and I began writing them. I sent it to Amanda right away and we began writing the song. Reaching out to Jimmy Webb and getting his blessing was a big motivator for us. He said it was perfect and not to change a thing. I even heard that he may have shed a tear or two.”

They updated the song to feature Carlile as a Highwoman, Shires as a healer and Hemby as a preacher, while country soul singer Yola joins the track as a Freedom Rider. Sheryl Crow sings backing vocals on the track, a collaboration that felt, as Shires explains, like getting a blessing from a foremother figure.

While “The Highwomen” is a fitting introduction to the band, early single “Crowded Table” is, in many ways, the album’s thesis statement. Written by Carlile and Hemby alongside Lori McKenna, the song imagines “a crowded table and a place by the fire for everyone” and extends a hopeful hand to those “feeling valley-low.” In the past, “Crowded Table” may not have read as a political song. But considered in both today’s political climate and the narrow confines of commercial country music, it’s quietly radical.  

Another standout track on The Highwomen is “If She Ever Leaves Me,” an aching barroom ballad featuring Carlile on lead vocals. The song tells of a woman whose female partner has found herself the object of a clueless man’s romantic attention. “That’s too much cologne,” Carlile sings to the would-be lothario. “She likes perfume.”

Shires wrote the song with her husband, Jason Isbell, along with their friend and collaborator Chris Tompkins. The trio thought that Carlile — who married her wife, Catherine Shepherd, in 2012 — was an obvious choice for the song, due both to her personal backstory and her uncanny ability to emotionally inhabit another writer’s song.

“We were on our anniversary trip and [Jason] was on the elliptical and he had this idea, ‘If she ever leaves me it won’t be for you,’” Shires says. “He called me and said he wanted Brandi to sing it, about a guy hitting on her wife. That happens all the time. I also don’t think there’s enough representation for gay folks on the radio, either. Our job as songwriters is to tell stories or use our voices and our language and turn it into rhymes that help other people express their feelings.” 

“I know that guy,” Hemby says of the track, laughing. “There are a lot of them out there. The way the whole thing came together is brilliant… The thing that I love about Brandi is she sings songs like she wrote them. If she sings a Joni Mitchell cover you would swear to God that she wrote it. Because that’s how much she loves a song and believes in a song and gets behind a song. So when I first heard it I’m like, ‘Oh my God, that’s such a brilliant song.’ And she goes, ‘I didn’t write it!’ She lives it, you know.”

Despite receiving little to no airplay from country radio stations prior to the album’s release, The Highwomen debuted at number one on Billboard‘s Top Country Albums chart, selling 34,000 album-equivalent units (which includes 29,000 pure album sales) its first week. That feat is not lost on any of the women, who see those sales figures as proof that, contrary to what country radio programmers may have you believe, there is a large audience of country listeners hungry for quality music by women artists.

“We were all kind of stunned,” Morris says of the album’s first week. “We’ve been in the ether of people’s minds for only about four months. Seeing those kind of numbers for a debut — those are real sales. Those are real album sales, meaning people want to own what we made. So that was incredibly validating.”

While The Highwomen is, at its core, a project of the band, they also had help from a few honorary Highwomen, including in-demand Americana producer Dave Cobb. Cobb was integral not just to helping the band translate its sound to tape, but to bringing Hemby, who led the charge on several of the album’s key tracks, into the fold. 

“He sent me the work tape of ‘Highwomen,'” Hemby says. “I just had chills. It was so well-written and so well done, I was just blown away. I was like, ‘Oh, we’re writing that record. Okay. So I wrote ‘Crowded Table’ with Lori and then I took it to Brandi and she changed a few things. Dave told me we need kind of a fun song. We wanted to be kind of light-hearted, so I had the title ‘Redesigning Women’ forever and decided, ‘I’m writing it for this project.’ It’s a little self-deprecating. We try to do it all but we can’t do it all. I know I can’t do it all. We do the best we can.”

“Redesigning Women” is heir to a number of clever, tongue-in-cheek songs about the female experience, like those pioneered by Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn. While the song, which contains lyrics like “changing our minds like we change our hair color,” is playful at heart, it also gets at what the Highwomen are trying to do: reframe the conversation around women in country music, and in a way that has you humming along for hours after you turn off the stereo.

At the end of our conversation, Shires has a question for me. “Who do you want to see join the Highwomen?” she asks. We talk about Janelle Monáe and Jenny Lewis, and already the possibilities are exciting. There is no wrong answer to this question, of course, and that’s the beauty of the Highwomen. All are welcome at their “crowded table” so long as they’re willing to put in the work and further the band’s mission.

Shires sees that mission as righting a good ship that’s headed in the wrong direction; it’s an optimistic, graceful way to consider blatant inequity, one that is representative of all of the Highwomen’s work.

“Sometimes your ship goes off course and it just needs a little correcting,” Shires says. “Or maybe your compass is broken and you need somebody to come fix it. But I feel like it’s happening one step at a time. Just the love and the support from so many folks has meant the world. I don’t know if they’re ever going to play us on country radio, but why the hell not?”

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