When it comes to the Highwomen’s terrific self-titled debut album, out this Friday, it’s tempting to try and think about the record outside of the constructs of gender. The “women in music” trope is an enticing one, particularly when it comes to criticism, and part of the reason we too often consider a woman’s work in a vacuum is because we think of it as just that: a woman’s work, and not just work.
But if for some odd reason you feel compelled to ignore the overarching message of what the Highwomen (Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires) are projecting, and the change they are trying to set in motion, the quality of what’s left doesn’t suffer. With or without context, The Highwomen is a country album for the ages, filled with joy, laughter, tears, pain, and shit-kicking honky-tonk soul.
Still, context does matter. Women are vastly underrepresented when it comes to country radio, and this is a project meant to tackle that disparity head on. As Carlile once told Rolling Stone, “Inequality prevents merit-based success.” The Highwomen, produced by Dave Cobb at Nashville’s RCA Studio A, is a movement in the name of meritocracy as much as it is an album — it aims to level the playing field as much as it aims to level you emotionally. Whether it succeeds in the former is yet to be determined, but the latter is easy: Carlile, Hemby, Morris, and Shires, alongside a score of others including Yola, Sheryl Crow, Jason Isbell, Tim and Phil Hanseroth, Miranda Lambert, and Lori McKenna, do what country does best, which is telling the truth about the human experience. Here, we break down each of the record’s 12 tracks.
Highwomen (Jimmy Webb, Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile)
With the blessing of Jimmy Webb, who wrote the original Highwayman anthem, Shires and Carlile created not only the tale of the band in classic response-song style, but also the story of how women, throughout history, have often sacrificed everything for a good greater than themselves. Here, it’s a freedom rider, an immigrant, a preacher, and a doctor, but what woman hasn’t put her dreams on hold to parent, or parenting on hold to live out her dreams? The chills come in the tiniest details: in the original version featuring Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson, the song closes with Cash singing “I’ll be back again.” On this one? It’s “we’ll be back.” That may seem like a trivial change, but it’s the crux of what this band is all about.
Redesigning Women (Natalie Hemby, Rodney Clawson)
When the Highwomen’s first single “Redesigning Women” is shipped to country radio next week, program directors across America will have a choice to make: play the song and help open the door to more diverse voices, or slam it shut, as they’ve been accused of doing for the past two decades. This song is a tough one for them to ignore however, simply because it’s so damn catchy. Co-written by Hemby, it puts a woman’s experience front and center, with just enough punch to make it smart, self-deprecating, and sarcastic all at once. “Some of us are saints,” the foursome sings alongside perfectly tasteful spikes of twang courtesy of Jason Isbell, “and some of us are surgeons.”
Loose Change (Maren Morris, Maggie Chapman, Daniel Layus)
When Maren Morris first started gaining steam on the Nashville songwriting scene half a decade ago, it was songs like “Loose Change” that made it clear that both her lyrical and vocal skills were miles above most. Rife with clever wordplay (“loose change, you don’t see my value”) and a heavy dose of Texas swagger, the track never quite fit in with Morris’ solo projects, but it works perfectly here, sped up a touch at the suggestion of Cobb.
Crowded Table (Natalie Hemby, Lori McKenna, Brandi Carlile)
If “Highwomen” is the story of the band, the gorgeous unison-sung “Crowded Table” is its mission statement. “I want a house with a crowded table,” they chant, “and a place by the fire for everyone.” It’s much more than a song about wanting a generous domestic life. “Crowded Table” is about looking for a world where everyone is given a chance to fit in, be it at home, in the office, or on the radio. This isn’t about leaning in or fighting for the top chair. It’s about making room.
My Name Can’t Be Mama (Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Amanda Shires)
Carlile, Shires, and Morris each take a verse on the equal parts funny and potent “My Name Can’t Be Mama,” a song about motherhood and parenting that also happens to be pretty damn inclusive. Every woman here has a different definition of motherhood, and a different reason she needs a break. For Carlile, it’s a rough morning after a rowdy night; for Shires, it’s in pursuit of a career; and for Morris, that break is actually from society’s expectation to have babies by a certain age. But the genius of “My Name Can’t Be Mama” is how it invites the listener to write their own fourth verse. Maybe you can’t be mama because you can’t get pregnant. Maybe you can’t be mama because you feel more like a dad. Whatever it is, they assure us, it’s OK. (Bonus points to Morris’ verse for her clever allusion to Carlile’s “The Mother”: “I’m not a fan of mornings,” she sings.)
If She Ever Leaves Me (Amanda Shires, Jason Isbell, Chris Thompkins)
Isbell told Rolling Stone that he came up with the idea of “If She Ever Leaves Me” while exercising one morning — and he realized that if Carlile sang the tune they could have a singular “gay country song” moment. The attention to detail here is stunning. You can practically see and smell the allure of a mysterious woman who draws all the glances in the bar, from both sexes. This is a love song that transcends sexuality while not ignoring it (“the sky hasn’t always been blue,” Carlile sings), but it’s also a showcase for one of the most exquisite, dynamic voices on the planet.
Old Soul (Maren Morris, Luke Dick, Laura Veltz)
Another Morris gem unearthed, “Old Soul” traces the burdens of growing up too fast with devastating intimacy. “I fix my mama’s problems like a habit,” Morris sings. “And daddy’s too.” Starting in a soft, warm delivery and building into an explosive bridge where Morris lets it all let loose, “Old Soul” feels like a secret look into the psyche of an artist who isn’t afraid to show the world what she’s thinking and feeling. We dare you to find another mainstream country star — one who actually gets airplay — taking as many risks as Morris is right now.
Don’t Call Me (Amanda Shires, Peter Levin)
Every proper country band needs a good kiss-off song, and this one co-written by Shires is a manifesto for anyone who needs a reminder not to pick up that phone when an ex comes a-callin’. Evoking bits of the Doors thanks to Chris Powell’s percussion and Peter Levin on Wurlitzer and keys, “Don’t Call Me” is capped off by Shires’ hilarious sing-talking: “Pick up a book and get self-help,” she fires. “1-800-Go-To-Hell.”
My Only Child (Natalie Hemby, Amanda Shires, Miranda Lambert)
Written by Hemby and Shires with Lambert, “My Only Child” is sung with heartbreaking candor by Hemby about her love for her daughter and her disappointment that her family ended up smaller than she’d once dreamed. But it’s also an ode to the fleeting moments that come with parenthood, and the realization they while they may not always be infants, they’ll be children forever. The writing here is as vivid as it is multi-dimensional — the lyrics change and grow, just like babies do.
Heaven Is a Honky Tonk (Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Ray LaMontagne)
Another reworking of an existing song, “Heaven Is a Honky Tonk” started out in the hands of Ray LaMontagne and ended up as a raucous ride with an appearance from Sheryl Crow and Yola. This is the Highwomen in pure country mode, taking the twang all the way up to the sky — and when they sing together, it somehow sounds like a chorus of 400, not four.
Cocktail and a Song (Amanda Shires)
The poet in Shires shines high on “Cocktail and a Song,” a song about mortality and life’s inevitabilities written with vibrant urgency. “Daddy passed me his bottle of tequila,” Shires sings, “Said, ‘time’s running out, we’re gonna have to pretend it’s a margarita.'” Shires’ voice rings tender and true with a warble that would make Dolly Parton proud — this far into the album, the Highwomen have already talked about motherhood, birth, love, and burdens. Here, they complete the cycle of life in all its devastating truths.
Wheels of Laredo (Tim Hanseroth, Brandi Carlile, Phil Hanseroth)
Unlike women, who are constantly pitted as being in competition with one another, men are seen as a friendly collective, openly exchanging songs and ideas. Back in the days of the Outlaws, everyone shared tunes and recorded each other’s music: it didn’t matter if Guy Clark had already cut his “Desperados Waiting for a Train” before Jerry Jeff Walker or the Highwaymen. Thus it seems like a active choice for the Highwomen to release their version of this classic-in-the-making at the same time as it appears on Tanya Tucker’s While I’m Livin’ (which Carlile co-produced with Shooter Jennings, the son of a Highwayman himself). Not only does “Wheels of Laredo” sound terrific, it reclaims friendship and collaboration as something that’s not just limited to dudes.