Last Friday we finally heard the first new music from the country music dream team The Highwomen. This project has been much talked about, with endless teases in interviews and hype on social media to the point where I began to worry the weight of expectations was going to crush the whole thing before it even began. I’m pleased to report that so far, so damn good.
Amanda Shires first envisioned the project with Brandi Carlile who brought and Maren Morris on board and then Natalie Hemby joined last after coming in to do some songwriting with the group. In fact Redesigning Women is written by Hemby (alongside Rodney Clawson who has written for mainstream artists like Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean) and it really does, as producer Dave Cobb said, sound like a hit. The lyrics are funny, fresh and remind us that since the dawn of time women have been out here adapting to an often unfair and ever changing world.
Now as for the title, which someone on twitter suggested was ‘sexist’, a little context is perhaps needed. It references a classic US TV show ‘Designing Women’ – a comedy about women working in an office, which in turn took its name from an old phrase ‘designing women’ which was used to describe women who schemed by concocting various “designs” or plans. The show reclaimed the phrase as a positive thing, and the song takes it further by saying that women who are ‘redesigning’ are able to adapt and face the challenges of living as well (or even better) than any man. I think it’s an inspiring and optimistic message, especially in this current climate.
Sonically it doesn’t veer too far from Dave Cobb’s typical country/Americana sound, quite similar to Isbell or Brandi’s last record. It’s not got loads of pedal steel or any of Amanda’s fiddle so I do hope to hear a little more of that on the album as a whole. In terms of the singing it’s interesting in terms of how they decide to split up the work. It begins with them briefly singing separately which I liked; then they all sing together, taking on various harmony parts. Brandi’s powerful voice definitely dominates the song and, while that’s no bad thing to me, I am intrigued to hear how they will split the vocal duties on the rest of the album, which will be released on September 9th.
Now I just want to take a moment to show my admiration for each of the women involved. Firstly Amanda Shires is a criminally underrated songwriter and musician who released on of my favourite albums of last year. She works constantly in the shadow of her husband and yet she shines at every turn. Her distinctive voice may be a barrier to some so I’m hopeful this project may help her reach more listeners.
There’s something just beautifully subversive about Brandi Carlile, a lesbian mother who, despite being a Nashville outsider, is working so hard to save country music from itself. Alongside her solo and collaboration work she is also producing artists like Tanya Tucker and The Secret Sisters plus organising a festival for women (even if the cost restricts access to rich women only at least it’s a start). She’s setting the standard and achieving acclaim across the board. Her involvement in the project can not be underestimated – she will bring in a wide range of different fans.
And to me that’s also why having Maren Morris in this group is so important. Some genre purists scoffed at her inclusion, even trolled her (the level of vitriol she receives is truly shocking) but the fact is this group needs Maren Morris. If the band are serious about trying to break into the country mainstream and having an impact they needed someone high profile who has seen recent success on the chart. Maren is a great singer, no question and she brings over another whole different set of fans who we need to convert to this kind of music if it is ever going to get played on radio. And she herself seems to have got stuck in a more poppy sound than ‘My Church’ so it’s nice to have her singing Americana.
And while Natalie might be the least known she is the dark horse of this group. Having only released one (excellent) solo album she might be an inexperienced performer compared to the others but she has written some of the best country songs of the last few years including tracks for Miranda Lambert and the A Star is Born soundtrack. I’m really pleased that more people are getting to hear her sing and it was emotional reading her Instagram post about how much this opportunity means to her.
This project is a collaboration, a movement rather than a band. Looking at the tracklist for the album (see below) I was slightly disappointed to see that there weren’t any songs written by all four members together. What I like about other country music supergroup Pistol Annies is that they cut themselves off from outside influences and work together to create a unified voice – so it’s like eavesdropping on three friends sitting around the dinner table. There is still a little part of my instinct as a music fan to prefer to hear an album like that which is majority written by the artists themselves only. But hey the Highwomen are doing things differently and I admire them for that too. I’m sure these Highwomen songs are going to be brilliant and there is a wide range of great songwriters involved including Jason Isbell, Lori McKenna and Miranda Lambert. Maybe they are just smart enough to realise that you can’t save country music alone.
The video features a whole slew of brilliant women from the genre, and I know Sheryl Crow and Yola have been involved in the record. I don’t know if that’s how Amanda Shires initially envisioned it but sometimes these things take on a life of their own. Why Margo Price decided not to take part, after being initially named, is a mystery and a disappointment – it may have been to do with her pregnancy but you hope she could become a part of this in the future (however she has been notably silent about the project on social media).
Maybe a criticism that The Highwomen will face is that this project is too white, which they can’t dispute. For me it is a shame that the two great supergroups of the year in Americana are so segregated. Maybe it’s a pipe dream but it would be nice to see Our Native Daughters and The Highwomen collaborate at some point, after all there’s still so much work to be done on race and gender equality which can only be achieved by intersectionality.
And I just want to finish this post with some thoughts about the trolling a picture of the band received on Twitter. Disappointingly as per usual people seem to take offence at adult women wearing shorts and crop tops. I was pleased to see Jason Isbell responding to the stupid comments and others doing the same. I’ve discussed before about how such blatant misogyny needs to stop. What another women wears or does with her body shouldn’t affect how you see them. We need to leave that thinking back in the last century where it belongs. After all Dolly Parton has had more plastic surgery and crazy outfits than anyone and I never see people hating her for it. That’s because they judge her on the music, her personality, her actions – the things that truly matter. I’m very happy the Highwomen have Amanda and Maren who go more glamorous, alongside Brandi’s tomboy look and Natalie’s grown up Americana style. We need to see different women like this working together and not feeling threatened by each other.
How long this Highwomen project will last is yet to be determined so we need to savour each second of it while we can. Women working together is always something to celebrate, especially in country music. Maybe to change the Nashville sound you have to aim bigger, cast the net wider and think differently. The Highwomen are going to do everything they can to make sure country music lets the cowgirls in. I for one can’t wait to witness the results.
THE HIGHWOMEN ALBUM TRACK LIST
1. Highwomen (written by Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Jimmy Webb)
2. Redesigning Women (written by Natalie Hemby, Rodney Clawson)
3. Loose Change (written by Maren Morris, Maggie Chapman, Daniel Layus)
4. Crowded Table (written by Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Lori McKenna)
5. My Name Can’t Be Mama (written by Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Amanda Shires)
6. If She Ever Leaves Me (written by Amanda Shires, Jason Isbell, Chris Thompkins)
7. Old Soul (written by Maren Morris, Luke Dick, Laura Veltz)
8. Don’t Call Me (written by Amanda Shires, Peter Levin)
9. My Only Child (written by Natalie Hemby, Amanda Shires, Miranda Lambert)
10. Heaven Is A Honky Tonk (written by Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Ray LaMontagne)
11. Cocktail And A Song (written by Amanda Shires)
12. Wheels Of Laredo (written by Brandi Carlile, Tim Hanseroth, Phil Hanseroth)