by Josh Hurst Music Rooted & Restless

The Highwomen | The Highwomen

October 1, 2019

The Highwomen were convened to address a particular problem: Gender disparity on country radio (thus far in 2019, only one woman has had a #1 single). Amanda Shires had the idea of putting together a posse of righteous singers and songwriters with the intention of celebrating women’s voices and airing the kinds of stories the country charts have historically failed to honor. She enlisted Brandi Carlile, songslinger Natalie Hemby, and Maren Morris; together they made a self-titled record with Dave Cobb in the producer’s seat, plus supple support from the likes of Jason Isbell, Sheryl Crow, and Yola. You can hear their problem-solving pragmatism in full effect on the opening title song, walk-on music that rewrites the famous Highwaymen anthem, a tale of masculine derring-do, into a whispered history of all the women who’ve been blotted from the public record.

The group triangulates their politics on “Redesigning Women,” a funny and harmony-rich ode to ladies who contain multitudes, as well as “Crowded Table,” a soft-touch anthem of inclusion and hospitality. But the triumph of The Highwomen is that it’s as eager to show as to tell; many of its songs live at the margins of gender politics, and speak to everyday experience from a place of candor and cheerful humor. The joke quotient is highest on “Don’t Call Me,” a gleefully trashy song of dismissal from Shires; subtler but no less clever is “Loose Change,” a Morris number that bares sharp fangs beneath its plainspoken country cliches. In addition to being very funny, the record is also grounded in country tradition, eschewing contemporary polish in favor of spare honky-tonk, Western swing, and outlaw austerity. Its crisp formalism makes the little tweaks and adjustments all the more savory, as on “If She Ever Leaves Me,” a classic country infidelity song about a guy who’s cluelessly trying to pick up a lesbian, voiced with wry understatement by Carlile. Also noteworthy are “My Only Child,” a bittersweet tearjerker written with spirit-Highwoman Miranda Lambert, and “My Name Can’t Be Mama,” about how identity is complicated and nobody is ever just one thing — an assertion The Highwomen makes again and again, pointedly, humorously, and elegantly.

Published as part of Rooted & Restless  | Issue 6