Album Review: The Highwomen

Flash forward to next year and imagine that the Highwomen have just won the CMA for album of the year to add to their Grammy, they have been played every hour on the hour on country radio and topped the charts with their first five singles, headlined a huge arena tour and been invited to join the Opry. Yes, Mama went and damn well changed the Nashville sound.

Doesn’t that sound like the most wonderful dream? Yet even me, the biggest Stan in all of Stanville, knows that this is unlikely, nay impossible. But why can’t it be reality, you may ask? After all Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby are four of the most talented women in all genres of music. Together they have produced an album full of quality songwriting, gorgeous country music and enough personality to dazzle even the most dark-hearted of cynics.

Women are doing the best work in the country music genre and have been for a long time. In fact this quality is ironically part of the problem as to why so many have faced dwindling chart returns and reduced radio play/streaming placements. That system is stacked in favour of one homogeneous sound, where music is just background noise that encourages passive listening out of desperation for streams or to stop people switching channels. Thankfully most women in the genre aren’t recording such derivative, personality-free music. But therein lies the problem. To become a success we must smash the system itself.

Change never happens over night, or without failure and defeat. If the generations before us understood anything it was that the fight is never won. Never. We have to work for every ear, every mind, every heart. Equality is the goal but when we live in a world that keeps changing the goalposts you can never rest. The opening song on this album is an anthem that understands this fact of history. Highwomen might not go to outer space but down here in the dirt of the Earth is where women have always worked to get the job done. If our efforts are in vain, then no matter. We’ll come back again and again and again and again and again. Every time I hear that song I get goosebumps, like the forgotten voices of history are pressing through my skin to reach the surface.

On ‘Redesigning Women’ they sing again of stories still untold – now we are in the modern world, where women are surviving and thriving despite everything stacked against them. As the group’s joyous video reminds us: sometimes girls just wanna have fun. If you didn’t laugh in agreement with the line Made in God’s image / just a better version then this album’s probably not for you. Or maybe it really, really is for you, even if you don’t want it to be.

You see that’s what’s so special about this project. Everyone belongs. A Crowded Table, with a space for everyone. That kind of house, and world, is where I want to live, with love and music uniting our voices together in harmony. Don’t underestimate the power of hearing all four voices sing this song together. Everyone is equally heard.

When Brandi Carlile takes the lead vocal on If She Ever Leaves Me it is to deliver a defiant message to any cowboy who looks at her wife. How many gay love songs can you name off the top of your head in any genre, let alone the most notoriously conservative one? The cliche of country music is three chords and the truth – so when your truth is about who you are and who you love, words become powerful and revolutionary. The music is as traditional as you can get, her voice as powerful and emotive as the greats.

Loose Change’ is a clever love song, whose central metaphor is piercingly perceptive about more than just relationships – women are sick of being under valued and treated like they’re worthless. And I’m so glad that Amanda Shires and Brandi Carlile understood Maren Morris’s value and asked her to join this project. She’s a superstar and someone who we need to support. When one woman is raised up, we are all raised up. The song Old Soul, where she also takes the lead vocal, shows her in a different, more sensitive light than before. Look beneath the surface.

Songs about motherhood and family are central to this album. For women the personal has always been political. My Name Can’t Be Mama is an honest summation of the conflicting emotions surrounding the role that women have long been chained to. It’s probably the most infectious melody on the whole album, and one of the few written by just Carlile, Shires and Morris. If I have one request it is that the next album includes at least one song where all four women write together as well. Cocktail and a Song is a solo write from Shires, the brains behind the whole project and her poetic lyricism shines strong on this story of aging parents. The bittersweet ballad My Only Child credits Miranda Lambert alongside Hemby and Shires. With the Pistol Annies, Miranda has her own supergroup but this contribution shows there’s no competition, no need to pick a team. The work of one benefits the other.

And that’s why it’s so nice to have the album finish on The Wheels of Laredo, a song recently featured on Tanya Tucker’s brilliant new album. Brandi Carlile has been working tirelessly to promote other women, bringing her audience new voices and reminding them of legends that have gone before us. By singing this song she wrote for Tanya, the Highwomen nod across to their fellow sister in arms. Together we are stronger.

Don’t let anyone tell you there’s been too much hype about this album. Until everyone hears these songs there can never be enough hype. Keep talking. Keep sharing. Let us take on the world while we’re young and able. Maybe we can change that Nashville sound after all. If not today, no matter. We go again at first light.

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