From the outset, The Highwomen seeks to topple the patriarchy.
Everything about The Highwomen, the supergroup featuring Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby, screams post-feminist anthems filtered through the lens of Americana. Their debut album seems written, recorded and performed as though daring critics to take a swipe at its content and/or creators in the wake of the #metoo movement, a giant middle finger to anyone who sees women as anything less than equals. Which is really saying something, particularly within the country idiom, long male-dominated and reliant on misogyny and one-dimensional female characters. To be sure, there have been female pioneers like Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, but even these queens of country get short shrift when compared with the likes of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, et. al. in terms of lasting legacies.
From the outset, The Highwomen seeks to topple the patriarchy. Opener “Highwomen” apes a similarly titled track by the ‘80s supergroup The Highwaymen, from the melody on down to the individual biographies recounted. Instead of hardscrabble cowboys, this showcases a handful of women’s struggles through history, ending in a group chorus in which they declare themselves “…the daughters of the silent generations.”
Meanwhile, “Redesigning Women” expounds on all the ways in which women have been forced to remake themselves in society’s image, struggling to be themselves in the face of social expectations. It’s particularly affecting given the history of country music and how its female artists have had to portray themselves over the years. But that’s about where the social and cultural commentary stops and the standard country fare takes over (save perhaps “Loose Change” and “My Name Can’t Be Mama”).
Approaching the album from a purely musical standpoint, however, theirs is a multi-part harmony and overall musical collaboration that works far better than that of Nelson, Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson, despite that group’s legendary status. There is no clashing of egos here, and each voice, while remaining highly individual both vocally and lyrically, meshes beautifully to form a cohesive unit. Bringing in additional guest vocalists (most notably Yola’s vocal turn on the title track) does much for the egalitarian nature of the project.
But strangely, there are a number of male collaborators both as instrumentalists and songwriters on the album: “If She Ever Leaves Me,” for example, a lesbian love anthem delivered in classic country fashion by Carlile, is somewhat ironically written by Shires and her husband, Jason Isbell. This takes some of the wind out of the project’s sails in terms of it being a grand feminist statement. But at the same time, that might well be the point, as after the first few numbers, The Highwomen settles into straight-ahead country territory. Having made their initial point, the quartet seem to elect to dial the social and political commentary back in favor of good old-fashioned country music.
Which is fine, given the caliber of performers and songwriters. But it makes the album feel like a failed Trojan horse, attempting to be something more profound than it turns out to be. Rather than being a generation-defining statement, The Highwomen is merely a solid album of country songs created by some of the most talented women (and men) working today.
It’s an enjoyable release full of great songs by some of this generation’s greatest performers. Whether or not that’s a good thing with regard to its social and cultural implications remains to be seen (perhaps it’s merely the opening salvo?) But if it gets the group the airplay that seems to be sorely lacking for female artists, well, then that’s at least half the battle.