REVIEW: The Highwomen is Cohesive Helluva Lot of Fun

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Amanda Shires is having a moment, and that moment has stretched well beyond two years now. In 2017, she became a full-fledged member of the 400 Unit, one of the tightest bands in any genre. Last year, the singer-songwriter-fiddle player released her sixth solo album, To The Sunset, stretching her sound well past the Americana mold. Amidst all of that, touring with two bands AND raising a now-three-year-old, she managed to hatch the idea of a female country-ish band. She eventually recruited Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby, rounded up a backing band, signed on Dave Cobb to produce, wrote an album’s worth of anthems with the group, and even enlisted some top-notch guest stars. The result? The Highwomen.

Even though Shires conceived the idea, the self-titled album on Elektra’s Low Country Sound is a full-on group effort, with roughly equal contributions from all four core members. The lead song on the record, appropriately, is “The Highwomen,” and it’s written by Shires and Carlile along with Jimmy Webb, who penned “The Highwayman” for country’s preeminent supergroup. Like the original, the new tune features different voices, each verse spotlighting a mythical figure who perished as a result of her search for justice and equality: Carlile portrays a Hounduran immigrant, Shire a Salem “witch,” Hemby a preacher, and guest vocalist Yola a Freedom Rider. Yola’s verse is especially poignant: “My mother asked me if that ride was worth my life/And when the shots rang out, I never heard the sound/But I am still around.” Each verse makes the point that all of these women, archetypes they may be, are essential to understand America in 2019 (musical aside – for the betterment of everyone’s ears, Yola should be featured on at least one track of every single album released this year – she’s just that good). “Redesigning Woman” takes us into current times by way of the 1970s. The idea that a woman can accomplish more with less (“Full-time livin’ on a half-time schedule”) isn’t exactly new, but we find ourselves in a time and place where the message bears repeating. Plus, the tune, written by Hemby and Rodney Clawson, is damn catchy.

Perhaps the most underrated part of this highly anticipated album, and the element that keeps it out of the murky “supergroup” category, is its cohesiveness. The backing band is actually one solid unit – Carlile’s “twins,” Tim (guitar) and Phil (bass) Hanseroth, Peter Levin (keys), Chris Powell (drums) and noted Nashville session player Jason Isbell appear on every track. The guest appearances (which also include Sheryl Crow) feel organic, And the four singer-songwriters of record, who all come from different backgrounds and find themselves at different places in life and on the Americana spectrum, use those varying perspectives to enhance the songs. “My Name Can’t Be Mama,” written by Carlile, Morris and Shires, provides different takes on motherhood. Shires and Carlile are mothers, but they have other aspects to their personalities – “No, it wouldn’t be easier to just quit the road and stay home/I’d lose myself inside the halls, unsatisfied, alone.” And Morris, not (yet) a mother, provides an answer to all of those who have questioned childless women (and, yes, even some childless men): “It’s not that I don’t want to, I just don’t want to today.”

The album’s a hell of a lot of fun, too. “Loose Change” is a honky tonk with a little bit of a message about finding value in oneself (it’s another Morris co-write, and her songwriting on The Highwomen is a revelation). “Don’t Call Me” is Shires’ country kiss-off to a pesky former lover. “If She Ever Leaves Me” lets a saloon cowboy know that he is DEFINITELY barking up the wrong romantic tree – “That’s too much cologne/She likes perfume.” And “Crowded Table” is an all-inclusive invitation to join these Highwomen in their celebration and acceptance of, well, all of us – “I want a house with a crowded table/And a place by the fire for everyone.” How could we possibly turn that down?

The Highwomen was produced by Dave Cobb, mixed by Tom Elmhirst, mastered by Pete Lyman and engineered by Brandon Bell. Additional songwriters include Maggie Chapman, Daniel Layus, Lori McKenna, Jason Isbell, Chris Thompkins, Luke Dick, Laura Veltz, Peter Levin, Miranda Lambert, Ray LaMontagne, Tim Hanseroth and Phil Hanseroth.

Pick up your copy of The Highwomen here: https://store.thehighwomen.com/

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