Music tells the story of our lives, and someone we’ve never met may be able to pen lyrics that connect with our deepest feelings. Heartbreak. Desire. Friendship. Love. Anger. For every emotion, there’s a song.
And then there are artists that define a generation like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Alanis Morrisette — don’t judge me — and The Highwomen. You might not be familiar with that last one, but you should be.
It’s a female supergroup made up of Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby. The group just dropped their self-titled debut album on Sept. 6, and it’s not only amazing, it’s what we needed to hear.
The album is a slice of Americana that hearkens back to the days of country rebels like Loretta Lynn, Kitty Wells and Tanya Tucker. It’s a no-holds-barred look at womanhood and every aspect of it.
The album leads off with a mission statement, of sorts, in its opening track, “The Highwomen.” It’s a revamped version of “The Highwaymen” anthem that tells four powerful stories: a Honduran mother that dies while trying to carry her children to safety, a “witch” hung during the Salem trials, a freedom rider shot in 1960s Virginia, and a female preacher who’s killed for doing man’s work. It’s the perfect starting point for this album, although not all of the songs are this heavy. Many are just as important, though.
The second track was also the album’s first single: “Redesigning Women.” It’s a tongue-in-cheek, yet authentic, look at being a woman and a mother. After the first track, the album needed something a bit more lighthearted, and this tune fits the bill.
The album has a little bit of everything honestly, as evidenced by the next several tracks. There’s the mistreated lover in “Loose Change,” the woman who’s beyond fed up in “Don’t Call Me,” and the woman who has the weight of the world on her shoulders in “Old Soul.”
“The Highwomen” crosses lines that should have never been drawn. It’s an album that embraces its listeners and a million different views. Take “My Name Can’t Be Mama,” for example. Motherhood is hard. It can be messy, painful and glorious, all at the same time. “My Name Can’t Be Mama” focuses on the messy bits. From the mother who just wants to sleep off a late night, to the mother who struggles with leaving her family behind as she goes off to follow her dream on the road, the song addresses being a mama and being an individual. The two titles aren’t mutually exclusive. The third verse even goes somewhere even more treacherous: the woman who chooses not to have children, at least not right now:
“It’s not that I don’t want to, I just don’t to today/
I’m not a fan of mornings and I love my Chardonnay/
No, I’m not saying never, I won’t wish it all away/
But, my name can’t be ‘Mama’ today.”
Perhaps the edgiest song might be “If She Ever Leaves Me,” which is likely the world’s first country gay anthem. Written by Shires, Jason Isbell and Chris Thompkins, it’s a solo song for Carlile, an openly gay artist with a wife and a child. It’s a country love song that is reminiscent of the ballads you could have heard on country radio 20-30 years ago, although it would have been sung by a man.
I want to take a moment to call attention to one of those songwriters’ names. Jason Isbell — who just happens to be married to Shires — is often cited as the best songwriter of his generation, and his last three albums have been nothing short of perfection. He’s just one of a crazy talented list of writers on this album that includes Miranda Lambert, Ray Lamontagne and the great Jimmy Webb.
For someone who grew up on country music and remembers fondly listening to artists of my grandparents’ generation, this album sets my soul on fire. It’s country music. It’s Americana. It’s sass and attitude. It’s twang with a whole lotta heart. It’s an album that is destined for immortality, and it’s an album that tells stories that need to be heard. It’s one of the most authentic and truthful albums I’ve heard in a very long time.
While I keep pointing out the “I am woman, hear me roar” moments of “The Highwomen,” I’d be doing it an injustice if I make it sound like it’s an album only for women. Even if you don’t have ovaries, there’s beauty in these songs — and a near perfect distillation of humanity, in all of its glory and shortcomings.
Consider“Cocktail and a Song.” It’s about a father sharing a drink of tequila with his child as they come to terms with the fact he’s dying.
Or “Heaven is a Honky Tonk,” which pays homage to the country legends, rakes and rogues that have passed on:
“There’s a choir singing in a Southern accent and a fiddle in the band/
There’s a ‘Hallelujah’ on the lips of every dying man/
Mama, don’t you cry when they’re dead and gone/
Jesus, he loves his sinners and Heaven is a honky tonk.”
This album aims to do one of the hardest things I’ve seen in my lifetime. It attempts to encapsulate the entire female experience, leaving behind all judgment and seeking truths not bound by norms and normative behavior. In “Crowded Table,” the group puts it this way:
”Yeah I want a house with a crowded table/
And a place by the fire for everyone/
Let us take on the world while we’re young and able/
And bring us back together when the day is done
The door is always open/
Your picture’s on my wall/
Everyone’s a little broken/
And everyone belongs/
Yeah, everyone belongs.”
As seen in this song, The Highwomen acknowledge their experiences and values might not always line up. They don’t agree with or share the same agenda all the time with each other. However, they agree that as activists, as women, they have to come together, hear each other, validate each other’s testimony, and value those words.
And, there’s something magical about listening to them while they pay homage to the musical past while pointing a way forward, ethically, morally and politically. Sure, the group is speaking to what they know — womanhood — but they are calling out humanity, collectively, for our close-mindedness and our inability to build coalitions, end suffering, fix problems and love one another, regardless of creed, ethnicity, natural origin, religion, sex or sexual orientation. It’s an important message served up in the familiar trappings of country-western music, one that can be enjoyed in any venue, even a honky tonk.