Let Us Now Praise Famous Highwomen

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Brandi Carlile was standing in the Basement East in Nashville when someone approached her, drink in hand and carrying a proposition.

“I want to start a band called the Highwomen and I want you to be in it,” Amanda Shires told her.

Maybe it was the alcohol that helped her get the courage up. Or maybe Shires is one of those people who has an innate sense of being there and belonging in the moment. This was the same person who cut her teeth playing fiddle at the age of fifteen on the porch of Frankie McWhorter and joining the famous Texas Playboys.

Now Shires was imagining the mystical forces that brought together Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofersson and reimagining it for a modern day band of women.

But to do that she’s need compatriots to join her. After saying yes, Carlisle made a call of her own to California where Maren Morris was sitting in the glam room getting ready to play on the Jimmy Fallon Show

“I didn’t skip a beat,” Morris recalled months later on the set of Sirius XM’s “Artist Confidential” special hosted by The Highway’s host Storme Warren. “I’ve got a new record coming out but…sure.’”

To her right was Shires and on her left Carlile who was standing alongside the Highwomen’s fourth member, Natalie Hemby. Morris admitted they had to learn how to blend together before they put anything on tape with producer Dave Cobb. Come the first Friday of September, the Highwomen release their highly anticipated first album.

“It’s a movement,” Warren declared, “something bigger than the four of you,” likening it to the biggest female group since Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt fronted The Trio.

“You’re all Highwomen, even you guys,” Carlile declared in response.

As the Highwomen assembled, Morris’ infectious country pop self-affirmation “Girl” was the week’s number one song on the Sirius XM station. Morris acknowledged it but seemed happiest just being one of the new band’s members .

For anyone who has listened to The Highway channel over the years, it was hard not to see the irony. The Highway seemed an unlikely locale to be the epicenter of a women’s movement.

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The absence of women on the station playlists has been disproportionate if not glaring. The weekly Hot 30 Countdown, a poll created by the station’s fans known as the Highway Patrol, has been noticeably consistent over the years, it has felt like a continuous circular feedback loop for male dominated country radio.

All the while a parallel conversation has ensued about why more women aren’t being played on country radio.  “Today’s Country” often overlooks the diversity, creativity and breadth of female artists. You just have to listen to Hemby’s  “My Only Child” on the new Highwomen debut album to feel like we’re living in a golden age of songwriting.

“Mama wants to change that Nashville sound but they’re never gonna let her,” Shires’ husband and collaborator Jason Isbell lamented in a broader cultural context on “White Man’s World” two years ago. Now on the Highwomen, he and Shires penned “If She Ever Leaves Me,” a breakthrough, openly gay country song written for and sung by Carlile.

Warren, whose infectious energy is a chapter out of the top forty countdowns we grew up on, is a gifted interviewer who has championed younger artists like Sonia Leigh and Leah Turner. Talking with Shires, Morris, Carlile and Hemby, he seemed like he had been born again of the experience and was ready to jump on the pirate ship that has become the Highwomen.

The Highwomen playfully mock gender stereotypes in “Redesigning Women” that makes you think while you hum it.  The song “Crowded Table” is reflective of the band’s inclusiveness. When they filmed the video for “Redesigning Women,” they called a bunch of their friends and country stars including Wynonna Judd, Tanya Tucker and Lilly Hiatt and ten others who make cameo appearances

Movements grow of their own momentum and perhaps this time, Shires’ imagination and nerve thrown in. If everything eventually comes to a tipping point, sometimes there’s signs along the way. We’re still reeling from the comments made by radio personality Bobby Bones when he likened women on country radio to being the tomatoes in a salad (with their male counterparts being the more abundant lettuce.)

Last year Minnesota songwriter Kari Arnett tapped the multitude issues facing female artists in a scathing song she called  “Only a Woman.” It was born out of the frustration she and other female artists like her experienced. Festival organizers would tell her they  didn’t want a lot of female artists on their bills. They reasoned music was slower, more sad, and they needed to sell beer. People would rather hear “fun, more upbeat guy bands” she told me.

“What do I know?” Arnett asked in a sarcastic refrain.  “I’m only a woman.” The song’s defiance and self-empowerment is an anthem for our  times.

For Kentucky born Kelsey Waldon who is about to release a new album, the Highwomen is inspiration to emerging artists like herself. She’s not sure if she’ll ever be played on country radio but likes the way the Highwomen are “rattling the cage” and helping to put to rest the lie that people don’t want to hear female country artists.

This summer also marked the public debut of the Highwomen who closed the Newport Folk Festival.

With them to publicly bless their union was the legendary Dolly Parton who snuck in unannounced under a hoodie to keep her presence secret. Their set was the first by an all-female group in the festival’s history.

Standing in the tent before they went on, the four women of the Highwomen couldn’t see the enormous audience and had no idea there’d be 7500 people awaiting them.

It was in a word “electric,”  Amanda Shires described, using a word that means much more in the Newport lexicon and immediately conjures the mythical August of 1965 when Bob Dylan strapped on his Fender guitar at the festival for the first time.

For Carlile, the biggest compliment was to look out and  see men wearing Highwomen t-shirts. It’s all emblematic of the community “coming together to make a change that we know is right.”

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When Warren asked Shires if she felt a sense of pride that she was proven right, she had a different view. “I don’t have that,” she said seemingly humbled by it all. “I mostly have a sense of gratefulness and gratitude.”

For Hemby whose recognition came later in her career, it felt like it took a lifetime to get here.

“I’m forty-two years old and a songwriter in Nashville,” she reflected likening herself to Cinderella. “I eat at the Olive Garden and shop at Target and have varicose veins. That’s my joke. I represent all the suburban moms out there. But one day your dreams can come true.”

It all has a sense of mystery where it’s going. For now there’s anticipation of finally releasing their new album. Morris talked about picking up her copy at Walmart.

“It takes people like you,” Carlile summed it up looking out to the studio audience. “It takes all of us.”

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