Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires Are The Highwomen (ALBUM REVIEW)

Somehow this concept seemed inevitable. The name itself conjures up the male supergroup of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson. These four ladies, though yet to the extent of those men, have attained plenty of stature in today’s country and Americana circles. The HIghwomen are a new collaborative movement formed by Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires. The single “Redesigning Women” has already been released and the group made its debut, and only appearance to date, at the Newport Folk Festival in late July, where they were joined by Dolly Parton. To say this album is highly anticipated, is an understatement. Yet, like most supergroup projects, (Trio, Pistol Annies, etc.) has its strong moments and it does carry a strong mission.  Yet, its ambitious and inclusive scope creates an enormity that somewhat weighs it down.

These four talented ladies are all terrific songwriters though, and that alone should compel most to listen. On “Redesigning Women,” written by Henby and Rodney Clawson, Henby offers, “…is the life most women are living today. We juggle so much in 24 hours and I wanted to write a song that reflected the goodness, the madness and the hilarity of it all.” Certainly the empowering messaging is timely  They are intent on writing songs that not only capture but perhaps further stimulate the growth of the burgeoning women’s movement. Brandi Carlile says, “Anyone can be a Highwoman. It’s about banding together, abandoning as much ego as humanly possible, holding one another up and amplifying other women every chance we get. Shoulder to shoulder. One push, one love.” Portions of merchandise sales will be donated to She Is The Music – a nonprofit organization committed to driving inclusivity and equality for women in music with the goal of transforming the industry’s current viewpoints.

The group has also released (not on the album) a new cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” which forms part of the soundtrack for the new movie, The Kitchen. They drew raves at the Newport Folk Festival and have appeared on several high profile TV shows already. Those settings though, only provide a brief glimpse into the breadth of this project that is focused on inclusivity and collaboration. The Highwomen are produced by Grammy-winning Dave Cobb and are joined by several guest musicians, vocalists and songwriters across the album. Sheryl Crow provides vocals and bass, Vola (vocals, background vocals), Cobb (acoustic/electric guitar), Jason Isbell (acoustic/electric guitar0, Phil Hanseroth (bass, background vocals), Tim Hanseroth (guitar, background vocals), Chris Powell (drums), and Peter Levin (piano and keyboards). Song contributors, in the addition to the four , are Isbell, the Hanseroth twins, Clawson, Lori McKenna, Miranda Lambert and Ray LaMontagne as well as several others.

The opening “Highwomen,” penned by Carlile, Shires, and Jimmy Webb,  has a song structure that will remind some of “We are the highwaymen” but their lyrical thread is much different, covering Civil Rights, Native Americans and the mission of inclusion. Morris, the most country of the four, delivers “Loose Change” while Carlile, Hemby and McKenna contribute “Crowded Table,” with its theme on sharing.  “My Name Can’t Be Mama” is a bouncy radio friendly tune written by Carlile, Morris and Shires, each sharing verses. “If She Ever Leaves Me,” penned by Shires, husband Isbell, and Chris Thompkins, has a folk feel to it, showcasing Carlile’s beautiful lead vocal and high harmonies from the others with this interesting line owing to the Stones – “She loves wild horses and tumbling dice.”  “Old Soul,” penned by Morris, Luke Dick, and Laura Veltz, begins calmly and builds to more great high harmonies in the choruses. It’s by far the longest song at close to six minutes.

”Don’t Call Me” from Shires and Peter Levin, takes a fast, steady tempo, punctuated with nimble guitar and organ, as Shires emphatically sings “Don’t Call Me’ in the chorus, amongst lyrics, some comical, about how busy she is.  “My Only Child” has Miranda Lambert joining Hemby and Shires in the writing. It’s a sensitive, lovely ballad, with keening harmonies and a mournful fiddle from Shires. “Heaven Is a Honky Tonk” from Carlile, Hemby, and LaMontagne, and piano from Levin,  is the requisite tune, with more twang than the others, that guarantees country as opposed to roots radio airplay. Shires is the sole writer on “Cocktail And A Song,” again highlighting both her gorgeous West Texas voice and sturdy fiddle work. “Wheels of Laredo,” from Carlile and the Hanseroth twins, seems also strategic, given all the immigration discussion these days, it makes sense to include mentions of  Rio Grande and music with Tex-Mex stylings. 

Hats off to The Highwomen for their uplifting music and the spirit of collaboration, bringing us together through music.

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