Album Review: The Highwomen – ‘The Highwomen’

The short version: Four artists pool their talents together to create an album that’s specific in scope and approach, yet broad enough to appeal to anyone who enjoys well-crafted country music.

  • Favorite tracks: “My Only Child,” “Cocktail And A Song,” “If She Ever Leaves Me,” “Highwomen,” “Loose Change”
  • Least favorite track: “Crowded Table”
  • Rating: 9/10

The long version: There are certain reviews where the background surrounding it speaks for itself; this is one of those cases.

It’s certainly understandable, though. After all, when Amanda Shires leaked news of a supergroup involving her and Brandi Carlile (and Margo Price, originally) all the way back in January, anticipation was so high that Shires was later forced to clarify that nothing was finished yet, much to the dismay of several music fans.

But an homage to the Highwaymen was still a daring task, especially when the only two women involved didn’t have the same commercial clout as all four artists in that original group did in country music, even if that clout was fading for them by that point. But that also forces us, as music listeners, to step back and assess what that really means. Radio airplay for female musicians is hard to come by in the modern day (and water is wet), but no one can discount Carlile’s huge impact in both Americana and country music over the past year, nabbing six Grammy nominations, producing a record for Tanya Tucker, and collaborating with country artists (among other things), all to pave a better road for female artists in the genre.

And along with Carlile and Shires came Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby to join the group, the former being the mainstream country darling who would attract the most attention, and the latter being the kind of naturally gifted songwriter who would only add more layers of nuance to this project.

Still, that didn’t mean there weren’t some early concerns for the eventual self-titled project from the now-dubbed Highwomen – the lead single, “Redesigning Women” was good, though it did have some clumsy rhymes, and when the next track, “Croweded Table,” was released, it left fans wondering where the variety was in terms of the performances (the harmonies are nice, but they eventually hit you over the head with them). Second, while there was no doubt Carlile, Shires or Hemby could make this project work well, Morris stood as the lone artist out, a fine performer in her own right, but one who scans as little more than a generic pop artist in her solo work shooting well below her potential. Lastly, while this collaboration had a lot of potential behind it, it’s also the kind of critic bait that inspires people to write thinkpieces about the group before the album is even out, thus offering potential fear that it might overshadow the eventual quality of the actual work.

But any fears or skepticisms one might have had with this project can all be laid to rest, as not only does the self-titled album from the Highwomen show all four participants in uncharted territory, it also shows them at the top of their game in every department: Carlile reminds listeners why she’s a captivating performer with a tremendous voice, Morris sounds better than ever before and should completely surprise her critics, and Shires adds her wonderful brand of darker edges to her writing and performances that are echoed by Hemby; it just so happens, too, to have absolutely stellar hooks and melodies that are among some of the best of the year.

Ironically, when I said this album finds the Highwomen in uncharted territory, that comment mostly extended toward the production. Both Carlile and Shires have worked with Dave Cobb on previous projects, but it was mostly to help them expand their own horizons and definitions of genre. On The Highwomen, however, all four participants find themselves in distinct country music territory, with the performances feeling intimate and raw. Now, one criticism with Cobb’s production has been that the vintage touches he adds sometimes overtake the record, and it’s not that it doesn’t happen sometimes here, but they never compromise the fidelity of the recording, which is crisp, clear, and full of some of the most gorgeously textured melodies of the year.

Between the ghostly swell of the restrained, darker-sounding acoustic guitar, fiddle and sandier percussion driving the title track, there’s a momentum to the track that never ceases to sound anything less than huge on what is a fundamentally minimalist track. And Jason Isbell’s ragged slide guitar work gives the album a crunchier roughness that’s as potent as it is melodic and groove-driven, showing its best side on “Redesigning Women” and “Heaven Is A Honky Tonk.” Again, there’s certainly a vintage flair to what’s going on here, but never at the cost of warmth or intimacy. The subtle saloon piano and fiddle driving “My Name Can’t Be Mama” gives this album a humorous bit of levity and instrumental prowess while “Don’t Call Me” opts for the same atmosphere, only with a jumpier percussion and bass groove to give it a righteously sour edge.

But for as good as the album sounds, it’s made even better by the performers behind the microphone. One small criticism of the project that carries over from “Redesigning Women” is that we don’t get any moments of camaraderie or dual perspectives in one song. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its fun moments, like when Shires says “don’t call Brandi” on the kiss-off track, “Don’t Call Me,” or that the harmonies are anything less than stellar, though; it’s just that, with every voice contributing equally to a handful of tracks here, the album can start to feel a bit one-dimensional at points, ironically. Perhaps that’s why the title track is one of the album’s best moments, because it finds each participant (minus Morris and with an added Yola) contributing a verse to reimagine the famous Jimmy Webb composition as an anthem for women who only wanted to inspire others, yet were all persecuted for it (in different time periods, at that).

But every participant in this project has at least one moment to really shine, showing why the best moments come from the individual perspectives and how they tie into the larger arc of the album – Morris sounds more passionate and vulnerable backed by restrained, country-leaning production and instrumentation than she ever has before, and songs like “Loose Change” with that ascending, drawn-out hook or “Old Soul” are among her best work to date. And I’m not sure what else I could add to describe the fierce poignancy of Carlile’s performance on “If She Ever Leaves Me,” but it ranks among her best. Hemby is known mostly for being a songwriter, but her 2017 album, Puxico, framed itself as a concept work exploring a small town and its residents, touching upon deep human experiences, most of all. As such, it’s no surprise to hear her sing a song about a mother’s love for their only child on, well … “Only Child,” a song that feels grounded enough to evade the obvious cheesy clichés and opt for something relatable, yet heartfelt. And while the album never really gets “dark,” Shires is still there to deliver the album’s biggest gut-punching moment in “Cocktail And A Song,” a tribute to her father that maps out his final day in a way that’s touching, yet nonetheless real and crushing by its end.

And “Cocktail And A Song” really emphasizes the true asset of this album – its simplicity. In a nutshell, these are 12 excellently crafted country songs that sometimes feel timeless, and yet other times push the genre forward in exciting ways. But if there’s any place where that’s evident, it’s in the content itself. Now, part of the critic bait does come through in this department, but the ultimate message of The Highwomen is that these characters just want to be treated as equal human beings going through their own sets of struggles. There’s, of course, the excellent title track, with a more nuanced historical perspective than it’ll probably get credit for, but most of the other songs find these characters struggling in the modern day. Sure, there’s no doubt about the ultimate joy a mother experiences when raising a child on “Only Child,” especially so young in infancy, but “My Name Can’t Be Mama” flips the coin over to reveal that it’s not always glamorous. The thing is, the former track is sung by Hemby in a nuanced manner while Carlile is mostly having fun juxtaposed against that jumpier saloon piano and fiddle on the latter track, and that track comes before “Only Child.” It’d be easy to knock points for consistency or a lack of proper sequencing, but when the tracks are this good individually, it’s hard to see this as a fault.

But that comment also extends towards the artists and writers behind these songs. Like with the vocal performances, each artist gets a chance to shine (often more than once), and when you have four perspectives chiming in, it’s easy to label the album as diverse, yet never scattershot thanks to consistent themes and ideas. In that sense, the album does feel broad in its scope, but the scope always captures that feeling of universality without having to compromise to get to it. It’s hard not to feel the same joy Hemby feels on “My Only Child” or understand the pain Shires is going through coming to terms with goodbye on “Cocktail And A Song.” With that said, if there’s any moment that feels too broad for its own good, it’s “Crowded Table,” which lays on the metaphor of acceptance too thick and cloying in a way that other tracks manage to skirt around.

But acceptance is a key element of this album; it’s bemusing, after all, to watch the cowboy who thinks he’s got a shot with a woman he’s interested in be shot down when her girlfriend tells him otherwise, catching him off guard with a perspective you don’t really hear in a country song. Even the artists themselves can admit, though, that while traditional masculinity is a deterrent in terms of societal expectations, even women themselves can pit themselves against each other in “Redesiging Women,” and that blame falls on everyone, for the record. Yet while that track plays things off in a coy manner, “If She Ever Leaves Me” never comes across in the same way. If anything, the subtext suggests that things are nearly over for Carlile and her lover, hence why they’re likely not literally together in that moment. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t going to put some player in his place anyway. It’s the same feeling that bolsters “Loose Change,” a typical kiss-off track, for sure, but one that also features some well-written lines and finds Morris showing off her new-found confidence in a way that feels earned.

That’s the thing about The Highwomen – it’s never trying to reinvent the wheel (well, except on “If She Ever Leaves Me”), but rather show real human beings dealing with the same throes of life we all do in their own individual perspectives. It’s why certain tracks can borrow from similar themes, yet never feel like they’re treading the exact same ground or are inessential cuts. It’s admittedly hard to picture Morris singing a song called “Old Soul” at first, for example, but the bigger focus is that the song is coming from someone overwhelmed by how fast their life is changing. As the mainstream country star of the group, that’s a side of Morris we really haven’t heard before, but is also certainly believable. And it shows that, while these women can be caught off guard at points, they never lose focus of where they want to go next or how they’re going to get there – the obstacles in their way are never themselves, which, for country music, is also an overlooked key element of the album.

And while I’ve dispersed criticisms for this album throughout the review, most of them feel inessential. It would be nice to hear Yola be the honorary fifth member of the group for the next project given her chilling performance on the title track, but when the issue on display is wanting more, it’s hard to call it a fault of the album itself. And while “Crowded Table” and “Redesigning Women” are the two weaker cuts here (it figures they were the first two singles), they’d likely be highlights on other projects given their excellent harmonies and melodies. The album, too, should have ended with the more gripping “Cocktail And A Song,” though part of the blame extends toward the closer, “Wheels Of Laredo,” not coming nearly as close to capturing the same emotional intensity as Tanya Tucker’s version of the song from only a few weeks ago. Lastly, to reiterate a previous point, this album is all over the place, so a criticism of a lack of consistent sequencing certainly is fair. But here, it’s hard to care when the individual songs stand on their own and are about as well-composed in every area as possible.

Ultimately, The Highwomen is a gargantuan undertaking that’s going to (and already has) earned every bit of critical acclaim it gets. All four participants are in top form, the songs feature a plethora of excellent writers without letting the thematic cohesion stray, and the production, while perhaps too muted for some, never fails to feel bigger than it is or get in the way of the performers. In a year filled with excellent debut albums, it feels weird to slot this album in that category, but this album also captures four artists in a new light, and you better believe they’ll be back again, and again, and again.

(Light 9/10)

Buy or stream the album!

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