The Highwomen are a country/americana supergroup based in Nashville, Tennessee. Their formation has been rumored since around 2016 when Amanda Shires spoke out publicly about the lack of female representation on country radio and hinted at the idea of a group of talented female musicians. In April of 2019, the group was officially announced with a lineup of Shires, grammy award winning songstress, Brandi Carlile and up and coming pop-country super star, Maren Morris. The group originally intended to leave the fourth slot open for a rotating door of guest artists, but during their performance at Loretta Lynn’s 87th birthday, grammy nominated songwriter, Natalie Hemby was announced as the fourth member. The buzz for new music was deafening and, just a few months after their official formation, they’ve dropped their self-titled debut.
Before we even touch on the performances of members themselves, we simply have to touch on the incredible instrumentation across the album, from the warbling organ on “Redesigning Women,” to Jason Isbell’s roaring guitar work on tracks like “Don’t Call Me,” and “Old Soul.” The latter is especially impressive as the song’s longer runtime is carried proudly by the intricate and well performed instrumentals.
Additionally, I’m astounded by the group’s ability and willingness to recreate the old-school style of icons like Dolly Parton or Loretta Lynn. Cuts like “My Name Can’t Be Mama,” and “Heaven Is A Honky Tonk,” feature the classic, walking bass and saloon piano of country music’s golden era, yet lyrically, the songs delve into modern, relatable storytelling in a beautiful way.
This, of course, brings us to the lyricism which is seriously breathtaking. The opening title track, which follows the narratives of women throughout history who were killed for being brave, empowered women against the wishes of their cultures. “If She Ever Leaves Me,” is a powerful love ballad which co-writer Jason Isbell aptly called “a gay country song,” as it follows the story of a woman bragging to a man that the love of her wife is hers and hers alone. But perhaps best of all, is the heart wrenching, “Cocktail and a Song,” in which Amanda Shires recounts the last moments with her terminally ill father with such brilliance and bravery that it is genuinely hard to listen to at times.
The album’s best quality, though, comes in the excellent vocal performances of everyone involved. Brandi Carlile’s smooth alto is captivating on the closer, “Wheels of Laredo,” and Natalie Hemby’s belting leads on “My Only Child,” are especially exciting as she’s primarily known as a songwriter, while Amanda Shires’ bright soprano rings out over nearly every harmony. Maren Morris is particularly impressive for me as, going into the project, I was unsure how she’d be effected by having far less experience than the women around her. Despite this, she brings some of the best moments with a power and fearlessness that allows her to comfortably hold her own among the bonafide legends on this LP.
The women are at their best, above all, when they’re together. The harmonies on this album are some of the best I’ve heard in several years and easily the most thoughtful harmonies in mainstream music today. Tracks like “Loose Change,” and “Crowded Table,” feature full, four part harmonies in which each part carries a unique and creative melody. That just doesn’t exist in music anymore. There is so much power generated when the four of them come fully together on choruses that the results have me replaying tracks time and time again.
All in all, I have very little to complain about. The production from Dave Cobb, while perfectly competent, is a bit uninspired and not quite as crisp as it could be, and there are a handful of lyrics that come off as a bit cheesy, but the majority of the LP is nearly perfect.
The group’s tight harmonies, brilliant lyricism, and full grasp of every facet of the genre from old-school honky-tonk to modern Americana, makes for a spectacular listen. The pacing is perfect, as is the complex and talented musicianship behind them.
The Highwomen is a benchmark achievement in country music and one of the most enjoyable albums of the year.