The Highwomen’s Joyful Country-Music Rewrites

The supergroup puts a feminist spin on familiar traditions while still maintaining a classic feel.

If all The Highwomen were doing was femme-ing up butch tropes, their self-titled debut wouldn’t be such a triumph. (Alysse Gafkjen)

In the 1985 hit version of “Highwayman,” four great country outlaws boldly went where no cowboy had gone before. Willie Nelson sang about a stagecoach robber who was hanged, Kris Kristofferson about a sailor lost at sea, and Waylon Jennings about a dam builder who slipped on the job. To this list of rugged and doomed workmen, Johnny Cash added … an astronaut. “I fly a star-ship across the universe divide,” he said in his signature boom, connecting the American West with the cosmos in a manner both preposterous and touching. On a very old topic, in a very old style, something new was being said.

Now, the fresh country supergroup The Highwomen offers a gender-reimagined “Highwayman”—called “Highwomen”—with the help of its original songwriter, Jimmy Webb. In the song, Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Natalie Hemby, and the guest vocalist Yola tell of tragically persecuted women, including a 1961 Freedom Rider, a Honduran mother bringing her family to America, and an accused witch in Puritan-era Salem. Solemn and pretty and straightforward, it announces the overt political intentions of The Highwomen and their self-titled album. Anchored by Carlile, Shires, Hemby, and Maren Morris, the band is a concept-first, capital-F feminist corrective.

Country music—and really all music—moves forward in the manner shown both by the original “Highwayman” and the 2019 “Highwomen.” Again and again, songwriters-as-voyagers remix rather than totally ditch what’s come before. But if all The Highwomen were doing was femme-ing up butch tropes, their self-titled debut wouldn’t be such a triumph. Morris is a rising superstar of rare nuance; Carlile is a literary-spirited outsider with a fierce wail; Shires uses Dolly Parton inflections for sneakily devastating narratives; Hemby, the least known of the members, has written five No. 1 country singles. All are nimble singers and songwriters who understand the trick Webb pulled with the astronaut—doing something not only new but also a bit weird, while making it sound classic.

That “classic” sound owes to a true team effort. The four main women sometimes share and sometimes trade off songwriting and singing duties; there are arms-around-shoulder gang singalongs and delicate solo interludes. In either case, they’re backed by an ace band and guided by the star Nashville producer Dave Cobb. Contributions come from the alt-country mainstay Jason Isbell (Shires’s husband) and guest vocalists, including Sheryl Crow. Polished and lush, throwback-y but not anachronistic, and packed with well-drawn melodies, the album dares country-radio programmers to continue their notorious habit of downplaying female talent. Moreover, the songs mostly avoid the dreary stereotypes of protest music.

Which isn’t to say that pink-hatted protesters shouldn’t scour the lyrics for sign-making inspiration. Take these rah-rah updates of domestic clichés from the statement-of-purpose single “Redesigning Women”: “Pulling up the floors and changing out the curtains / Some of us are saints and some of us are surgeons / Made in God’s image, just a better version.” If these are bumper stickers in waiting, they’re also chewy singalong lyrics over a honeyed, mid-tempo groove. You can tell the four women are having fun in the first verse as they pass the mic between one another like it’s the medicine ball in a gym warm-up.

When The Highwomen take on personal matters—with the anti-sexism social meaning only implied—they’re equally memorable. Morris’s “Old Soul” hits upon a fabulously specific idea that tweaks the frontiersman image: It’s the confession of someone who’s had to be a strong and silent provider wishing they could have lived a wilder life. Another Morris-led banger, the catchy and fiddle-laden “Loose Change,” uses simple and deft metaphors around money to deliver a kiss-off. “If She Ever Leaves Me” has Carlile serenading a hard-to-get woman, and what’s remarkable is not only the queer desire, but also the way it recasts the cliché of the heartbreaker at the honky-tonk. These are subversions, but they are also good country songs in the traditional way, taking a piece of the heartland’s conceptual furniture and tipping it only slightly askew.

The label of “supergroup” is always fraught—such groups rarely turn out to be all that super—but here it’s shored up by the way the form of the band aligns with its mission. On “Crowded Table,” the women conjure a grand, sprawling feeling as they imagine a house where “everyone’s a little broken / And everyone belongs.” The title track both describes and, structurally, embodies that vision as it tells of shared struggle across time and circumstances. The band pulls off a more amusing—and maybe even more profound—version of that same maneuver with “My Name Can’t Be Mama,” whose madcap and swinging bustle offers a variety of reasons a woman might feel meh about motherhood. Carlile’s verse is about being too hungover to parent the kids you have; Morris’s verse is about being too restless to have kids at all. Feminist, communal, and unapologetic, it’s very 2019. But in so powerfully celebrating something too often treated as taboo, it’s also classic outlaw fare.