The Highwomen, “The Highwomen” (Low Country Sound/Elektra Records)
Throughout history, certain narratives have been silenced — those of women, queer persons and persons of color. And while nothing can right the wrongs of the past, there is some justice in telling those stories.
That is the intention throughout in The Highwomen’s self-titled debut album. The foursome, comprised of Grammy Award-winning artist Brandi Carlile, “The Middle” vocalist Maren Morris, songwriter Natalie Hemby and singer/violinist Amanda Shires, have taken back the country music genre to shed light on perspectives that were missed in songs past.
The 12-track LP transports you to the world of classic country, recalling artists such as Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette. But instead of taking stances such as Wynette’s in “Stand by Your Man,” The Highwomen bring a more nuanced side to the conversation.
In the title track, stories of the deceased ring out — an immigrant from Honduras who passed away during her journey, a healer hung in Salem after being accused of being a witch, a Freedom Rider who was killed on her journey bound for Mississippi, a woman preacher who was told she shouldn’t teach. The stories are told in first-person by the women, with the added help of English artist Yola and Grammy-winning Sheryl Crow. Shires’ crying violin brings texture throughout.
“If She Ever Leaves Me” gives voice to the queer perspective. Instead of reaffirming the male gaze, the song gently teases the man’s intent, as Carlile_herself married to a woman_sings to a man, “by the third drink you’ll find out she’s mine.”
While the album certainly seeks to redefine women’s roles within the genre, it does so delicately. There is no rejection of motherhood, but instead the complexity is highlighted. In “My Name Can’t Be Mama,” The Highwomen recognize days (like the morning-after hangover) when they need a break from being motherly.
In “Redesigning Women,” the group emphasizes their varying parts— “Runnin’ the world while we’re cleanin’ up the kitchen/ Makin’ bank, shakin’ hands, drivin’ 80/ Tryin’ to get home just to feed the baby.”
Even the traditional Christian perspective is respectfully tested. While there are religious undertones throughout, conservative ideas are questioned in “Heaven Is a Honkey Tonk,” where “there’s a choir singing in a Southern accent” and sinners, too, make their way through the pearly gates.
The album is groundbreaking. It pays homage to the best parts of classic country music, displaying expert instrumentation, tight harmonies and ringing vocals. Yet, it is unafraid to challenge the genre’s norms and shortcomings in a way that is nonabrasive.
The Highwomen are not looking to destroy a genre that came before them and influenced them each as artists. Rather, they’d prefer to add to the narrative and open country music’s doors a little bit wider.