The Highwomen: In the Studio With Country’s Ballsiest New Supergroup – Rolling Stone
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The Highwomen: In the Studio With Country’s Ballsiest New Supergroup

Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Amanda Shires, and Natalie Hemby empower women, challenge Nashville’s gender barriers on debut album

The Highwomen

Natalie Hemby, Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires make up the Highwomen.

Alysse Gafkjen

“That’s a fucking hit,” calls out Dave Cobb in his customary denim uniform, seconds after the last note of the Highwomen’s debut single, “Redesigning Women,” plays through the speakers on the console at RCA Studio A. “There’s no excuse why this can’t be on the radio,” he says, turning toward an elated Brandi Carlile and Amanda Shires, who are both nodding like two parents whose kid just lapped everyone at the track meet, twice. Together with Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby, Carlile and Shires make up the Highwomen — an all-female supergroup that is ready to challenge Nashville and country radio’s gender barriers with their self-titled debut LP. Shires cheers. “Yeah,” Cobb adds. He’s clearly stoked. “It’s a fucking hit!”

It’s day five of recording in the studio with the Highwomen on a March afternoon, and today Carlile and Shires are working on a gorgeous country piano ballad about mortality, “Cocktail and a Song,” from the Highwomen’s Cobb-produced album (out September 6th on Low Country Sound/Elektra Records). Yesterday Morris was laying down vocals in between tour dates and, tomorrow, Hemby will come by and officially be made a part of the band. And though the Highwomen’s core is Carlile, Shires, Morris, and Hemby, the atmosphere suggests it’s much bigger than just those four. Jason Isbell, who plays guitar on the album and co-wrote one of the songs, is here, sharing stories from a time when Drive-By Truckers singer Patterson Hood got into a fight at summer camp, and Phil and Tim Hanseroth — a.k.a. “The Twins,” Carlile’s longtime collaborators — are shuffling around, too. It’s predominantly women though, leading Tracy Gershon, a co-founder of the women-in-music org Change the Conversation, to deadpan, “There are a few penises here, but a whole lot more balls.”

Everyone wants one more playback of “Redesigning Women,” so we listen twice. Carlile, in jeans and a Tanya Tucker trucker hat, chants along, lit up in a Magic Kingdom glow while Shires sets down a lyric sheet, urging a sing-along — the whole Hemby and Rodney Clawson-written track is so infectious that it’s barely necessary to see the words. “My favorite line is ‘a critical reason there’s a population, raisin’ eyebrows and a new generation/Rosie the Riveter, with renovations,” Carlile sings, her own eyebrows rising high and mighty. “And always gets better with wine.” Cobb’s right: “Redesigning Women” is catchy, smart, delicious, anthemic country gold for the woman who brings home the bacon and cooks it, too — or orders it on Postmates, because who says she has to be in the damn kitchen anyway? It is, very clearly, a fucking hit.

The reason why we’re here though — and part of the reason why the Highwomen even exist — is because of what country radio thinks constitutes “a hit.” More often than not, it’s a song sung by a man. “Redesigning Women” has all the bones of a what could dominate the airwaves if gender bias weren’t so ingrained in the foundation, and that’s the point: the Highwomen’s LP isn’t a kiss-off to Music Row, meant to rattle and shake anything but the doors themselves open. Rather, it’s an invitation to turn a corner on inclusivity. It’s a set of country-ass songs from four of the best in the business, in a perfect storm of critical appeal, mainstream success, indie cred, and good ol’ fashioned fun.

“It’s not anti-establishment,” says Carlile, taking a seat backwards on a rolling office chair in front of the console. “And it’s not a band. It’s a movement. The Highwomen is not just four people. It’s not a compilation disc.”

The “movement” vibe is strong at Studio A, with many passengers aboard the Highwomen’s “pirate ship,” as Carlile calls it. Yesterday, Shires hosted a tattoo party, and nearly everyone got inked with a Highwomen logo — Shires and her best friend Kelly Bueno, Carlile, the Twins, Gershon, Isbell. “We’re going to have a PDF you can download to get your own, and temporary ones for the children,” Carlile says. The record features appearances from Yola and Sheryl Crow, along with a co-write with Miranda Lambert, and there are dreams and plans for many others (Dolly Parton is on the bucket list).

Shires came up with the idea for the Highwomen around 2016 when she was on the road, listening to country radio and tallying up how many women she’d hear come across the van’s speakers (spoiler alert: it was a very low number). Cobb suggested Shires recruit Carlile, who was an instant sell, as it jibed perfectly with the advocacy she’d already been doing on behalf of women and marginalized voices. Morris came next, followed by Hemby, who has co-written some of the most lauded songs by female artists in the genre, including countless ones with Lambert and three from Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour. With Carlile fresh off three Grammy Awards and a veritable career explosion; Shires soaring on the critically acclaimed rock hybrid album To the Sunset; Morris becoming a bona fide pop star and releasing her killer Girl LP; and Hemby writing hit after hit while launching a career as an artist, one could make the case that the timing couldn’t be worse for such a left-field group project. But for this quartet, the collective mission took precedent over any individual pursuits.

“I think a lot of people on my team probably thought I was insane to join a band right in the middle of my own album cycle and tour,” Morris will share later. “But when Brandi called to ask me if I wanted to be a Highwoman, and that these were going to be the people involved, I couldn’t say no. I’ve also been touting the same message with Girl; it’s high time for more female perspectives in the country genre.”

The first thing that Carlile and Shires did to kick off the Highwomen mission was take the original “Highwayman” anthem — sung by Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson — to its songwriter Jimmy Webb, who helped them rewrite the story of their own ghost band, as the original group of outlaws did before. “[Their characters] all died doing things that men do,” says Carlile. “Willie was a bandit. Johnny Cash drove a fucking starship, nobody knows why. We rewrote it with fates that befell women: a doctor convicted of witchcraft; an immigrant who died trying to get over the border but got the kids over safe and sound; a preacher; and a freedom rider who gets shot.”

Women are practically ghosts on country radio too, so it’s not hard to understand why female artists like Morris, who had massive crossover success with the Zedd collaboration “The Middle,” might pull away from the genre and gravitate to more welcoming formats like pop and Americana. “The country purists online, they’re the worst,” Isbell says shortly after rolling up a pant leg to show off his “Highwomen” tattoo, as well as some swell printed socks. “If you look at the country radio charts, and there is one woman every three weeks in the Top 20, what’s going to encourage women to try to make music in that direction?”

But the music of the Highwomen is undeniably in country’s house, with the band hoping to repopulate the neighborhood for future generations with an album that’s full of stories of humanity, humor, and, yes, womanhood. There’s “My Name Can’t Be Mama,” a barn-burning honky-tonker about juggling motherhood with personal identity, and “My Only Child,” a heartbreaker gorgeously written by Hemby, Shires, and Lambert about the ache of missing someone who will never actually be born.

The Highwomen

The Highwomen’s debut album arrives September 6th. (Courtesy Low Country Sound/Elektra)

And then there’s “If She Ever Leaves Me,” a classic country weeper that just happens to feature a woman — Carlile — singing about another woman, written by Shires, Isbell, and Chris Tompkins. “Me and Amanda were in Jackson Hole, and I was on the elliptical and I thought about this project and went, ‘What if Brandi sang it?'” Isbell says. “And I started going, ‘Gay country song! Gay country song!’ I called Amanda [Shires] and went ‘Gay country song! Gay country song!'” The group is billing the tune as the first of its kind, and it encompasses the kind of longing that anyone who’s ever felt true desire can relate to: love is love. “If she ever leaves me,” Carlile sings, infusing her booming range with the spirit of Hank Williams’ and Dolly Parton’s most lonesome yodels, “it won’t be for you.”

“I love that we have songs on this album about shattering female stereotypes to a gay country love song, and songs about losing loved ones,” says Morris. “It’s all real and it’s all country.”

Longtime fans of Morris will recognize “Loose Change,” a whip-smart early work that helped stir discussions about her bubbling talent around Nashville. She’s unmistakably country on this one, just as she is tenderly folky and confessional on “Old Soul,” which tells her story of a life lived too fast and a childhood exchanged for grownup dreams. “Even though those songs might not have fit on my solo record, they could flourish and really thrive in the sonic space that these women and [Cobb] created,” says Morris. “Now I feel like I’ve caught this Americana bug after doing this album with them.”

For each member, playing music so distinctly country has been part of the Highwomen’s allure. “I love my lane of crazy weird music, but in my heart, I’m always going to be a person who loves country music,” says Shires, “and I have missed playing country music.”

Notably, the LP’s closing track “The Wheels of Laredo” also appears on Tanya Tucker’s forthcoming album While I’m Livin‘, produced by Carlile and Shooter Jennings. Back in the day of the Highwaymen, this collaboration and creative exchange between men felt commonplace and encouraged. Everyone sang each other’s songs (listen to Willie and Waylon have fun with the idea in Kristofferson’s “Don’t Cuss the Fiddle” in 1978), and the lines between artists were pliable. Nelson and Jennings didn’t have to compete with each other, because there’s no such thing as only one slot when it comes to a male artist — an idea that’s drilled into women from the first time they set their feet on stage.

“There’s always been this pitting of women against women, maybe because there aren’t a lot of spots,” says Hemby, this time gathered with her bandmates in a field in Franklin, Tennessee, several months after recording the album, to shoot the video for “Redesigning Women” on a thousand-degree summer day. She and Carlile are both wearing Highwomen T-shirts, and later they’ll don full firefighting uniforms. “Or they try to make it feel like there is a competition, or women don’t want to hear each other,” Hemby continues. “But any time I go to a woman’s show — Miranda’s, or Little Big Town — I see women there in full force. And we want those girls to grow up and have lots of women to look up to.”

There’s the same sort of communal vibe at this video shoot, with Carlile’s wife, Catherine Shepherd (who oversees their Looking Out Foundation), Ali Harnell, president of Live Nation’s women’s arm Woman Nation, and some of the creative forces working on the video gathered in a crowded tour bus. Morris, who woke up with a fever and is recovering in her own bus, will still manage to get into a firefighter’s suit, and, in a few hours, the place will be flooded with women from all across the country spectrum making cameos: Lauren Alaina, Kassi Ashton, Cam, Lilly Hiatt, Wynonna Judd, Catie Offerman, Cassadee Pope, Erin Rae, RaeLynn, Natalie Stovall, Anna Vaus, Hailey Whitters, and Tanya Tucker (behind the wheel of an old truck, no less). Directed by Elizabeth Olmstead, the “Redesigning Women” clip burns expectations to the ground. Like, literally throwing them in a pile, spraying them with lighter fluid, and setting them ablaze.

The Highwomen

Alysse Gafkjen

Launching your own project by helping to put the spotlight on others isn’t exactly the way things are done on Music Row, but Carlile, Morris, Shires, and Hemby are avid inclusionists, from Morris’ all-female Girl World Tour to Carlile’s Girls Just Wanna Festival. Carlile was also asked to curate the first all-female headlining set at Newport Folk Festival next weekend, where the Highwomen will make their official live debut. She’s going to call it “The Highwomen of Newport.” (It’s a safe bet that some folks might leave with new tattoos.)

“The Highwomen has become an adjective for any transcendent women’s group,” says Carlile. “For anyone who wants to step aside and amplify the women to the left and right, and not compete. Which is actually radical and revolutionary. It’s radical because it’s not easy to find. And it’s revolutionary because so many of us are afraid to admit we are competing. It’s such a hard thing to admit about yourself.”

“It’s kind of like Nike’s Just Do It [slogan],” adds Shires, sitting cross-legged on a bench eating a BLT. “‘I’m a Highwoman.'”

The Highwomen will be sending “Redesigning Women” to country radio with everything they’ve got — to “re-illuminate the path” and make sure that young women grow up hearing themselves, and their stories, reflected on the airwaves. Will radio play it? Who knows. But it’s still a fucking hit.

“I don’t know what the excuse will be if there is one,” says Carlile about whether or not it will end up on the country charts. “But I know that if we get played on country radio and we succeed in opening the door on that format for other women, then that’s a great story. But if we don’t get played and we are rejected by country radio, that’s also a great story. The Highwomen are a great story, no matter what.”

 

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