The Highwomen come steeped in history — a history they rewrite, literally and figuratively. Their name, and the title track of their terrific self-titled debut, alludes to “The Highwayman,” Jimmy Webb’s 1977 song-turned-hit signature of the Highwaymen, the Eighties supergroup of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson. Rewritten with Webb for a new singer-songwriting collective — Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Amanda Shires, and Natalie Hemby — “The Highwomen” swaps the original’s mythic male narratives for female ones: an immigrant mom who dies fleeing Honduras through Mexico, a “witch” hanged in Salem, a murdered Freedom Rider, a preacher persecuted for her gender. “We are the highwomen, we sing of stories still untold/We carry the sons you can only hold,” the women declaim over sparkling guitars. It’s as powerfully primal as musical storytelling gets.
What’s most impressive about The Highwomen, handsomely produced with Nashville neoclassicist Dave Cobb, is how artfully, and matter-of-factly, it engages social issues. Credit the concentration of songwriting talent. Every woman here is at the top of her game. With last year’s By the Way, I Forgive You, Carlile reached a new creative peak after 13 years of record-making. Morris is a boundary-breaking pop-country hit machine. Shires is a fiddle virtuoso and genre-agnostic singer-songwriter (see last year’s To the Sunset). The semi-secret weapon is Natalie Hemby, who’s made her name as an A-list Music Row writer with serious range — she co-wrote three songs on Kacey Musgraves’ 2018 masterpiece, Golden Hour, and 10 on Miranda Lambert’s landmark The Weight of These Wings. Hemby’s got a stoner-friendly wit that loves wordplay; see “Redesigning Women,” an anthem that nods to the Eighties Southern-ladies-in-business sitcom Designing Women. See also “My Only Child,” a nuanced tear-jerker penned with Lambert and Shires that’s full of sharp details (“Pink painted walls/Your face in my locket/Your daddy and me/Your tiny back pocket”).
The writing’s distributed equitably, and not every song goes for profundity. “Don’t Call Me,” a Shires co-write, is a sassy kiss-off to a leech. Morris similarly boots an unappreciative partner on “Loose Change,” and joins Carlile and Shires to claim a maternal flex day on “My Name Can’t Be Mama.” But even the playful songs have gravitas. “If She Ever Leaves Me,” penned by Shires, husband Jason Isbell, and Chris Tompkins (co-writer of Carrie Underwood’s monster hit “Before He Cheats”), is a queer honky-tonk ballad delivered by Carlile, who advises a hot-to-trot cowboy to back off from her lover. “That’s too much cologne,” she tells him evenly, “She likes perfume.” It’s plain-spoken enough to make heteronormativity seem abnormal, just as the album makes anything short of equal representation feel like both a lie, and a squandered resource.