The idea of a “supergroup” always produces a small thrill, and the introduction of The Highwomen was no exception. The wrinkle that makes this group more than a gathering together of various country-tinged artists is its conscious reflection of and response to the all-male country supergroup of the 80s and 90s, The Highwaymen, which consisted of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson. This new group, which includes Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires, has chosen a name which sounds quite similar to the group they make reference to. This distorted mirror-image reflects the album and group’s effectiveness well: it’s a supergroup, sure, and in the same genre as that one before it. However, it was no coincidence making this group all-female, and the writers and performers in The Highwomen bring a distinctively female perspective to every song, shining a light onto particularly female experiences and drawing out the nuance that an outsider might fail to recognize.
The album begins with a clear mission statement, in an answer song to The Highwaymen’s first song from their first album, also self-titled. Here, the Highwomen use the same structure and melody of that first song—a quartet of verses from the perspectives of outlaws through time—but tweaks it to be the stories of four different women whose stories all end in death because they dared to be individuals or to fight against oppression while they were alive. There’s a healer accused of witchcraft, a preacher who happened to be female, a mother fleeing Sandinistas with her children, and a Freedom Rider in the early ’60s whose bus was met with gunfire. For that last story, we get guest vocals by British country-soul singer Yola Carter, who illustrates the potential flexibility of the supergroup; its ability to expand and contract based on the female voices it requires for every track. The power of this song comes from the subtle underlining of this album’s desire to draw attention to the lives of women and the choices they make, and the way they move through the world and the specific consequences that can come from just being female in the world.
While every song, no matter how small the subject may seem, is based in that perspective and that mission, there are some that feel especially fresh and unique because of the specific experiences that are being drawn on by the performers. “My Name Can’t Be Mama” is a jaunty, spirited song that has each woman explaining why she just needs a break from being Mom today. Each mother explains that they love their children and don’t regret a thing, but today they need to take care of themselves first for everybody’s sake. Maren Morris, the youngest of the group, has a verse which explains why she isn’t even having kids right now, although she isn’t saying “no” to them forever.
“If She Ever Leaves Me” follows “Mama” and is a standout for its subtle illustration of a lesbian relationship, as explained by a woman—sung by Brandi Carlile, a queer woman herself—who is watching a cowboy ogle and admire her girlfriend. The song sounds like it’s being told over two casually poured glasses of whiskey, and the slightly melancholic tone pairs well with the singer who states “if she ever leaves me, it won’t be for you,” but it might be for “a woman with more time/who’s not afraid to let her dreams come true.”
The group also crafts two songs in the classic vein of “I’ve been spurned but I’m going to be sassy about it” that is so familiar to country music. “Loose Change” features the singers proclaiming how devalued and uncared for they feel, similar to the titular objects. It’s, unfortunately, a common enough theme of songs sung by women, that of reminding her man that she has value and he doesn’t deserve her, but the women bring such energetic charm to the song that it never feels pitiable, but exactly like someone who clearly has value and is showing it off as they walk away from someone who is failing to see it.
“Don’t Call Me” is another classically female problem song, directed towards an ex-partner who still relies on the singer for emotional support when they find themselves in a jam. The song is full of fed-up rejoinders to this person (including the cheeky “1-800-Go to Hell”) and bounces along nicely with its spunky, rollicking spirit.
One of the best songs and one in which the collaboration of these women is especially essential comes early on with “Crowded Table.” The song extols the virtue of reaching out hands and welcoming others you meet and bringing them into your life rather than shutting them out because of differences. The women, all four voices joined, sing “I want a house with a crowded table… let us take on the world while we’re young and able/and bring us back together when the day is done.” It’s a song that could verge into cloying, urging people to talk to and understand those who don’t share the same beliefs as them, but the sincerity of every woman’s performance makes clear the value of at least being open to listening to others, and in offering compassion and hospitality first over hostility or judgment.
The album loses a little bit of steam towards the end, with the exception of “Cocktail and a Song,” which draws from the experience Amanda Shires had with her terminally ill father. The song avoids expectations of maudlin tragedy, however, and instead meets you with a graceful acceptance that is not often found in songs of this nature. It’s another reminder of the specificity these women bring to the songs here, as well as the nuance and the empathy for their subjects.
The Highwomen is an efficient, but emotionally rich album that offers up plenty of nuanced and carefully constructed country songs. The songs are of course enjoyable enough for any audience, but there is a particular pleasure that comes from being a woman and hearing other women tell stories that are definitively from the perspective of a woman, drawn from her own experiences in the world. The formation of this supergroup was initiated by Amanda Shires after realizing how few female artists were featured on country radio, and the result of this album is a collection of classic in spirit, yet modern in subject, country songs that spotlight four unique and strong female voices all at once and which illustrates just how much country radio is missing by sidelining these perspectives.