The Highwomen, the powerhouse group of Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby, define what it means to be a modern woman on their compelling self-titled debut album. Throughout 12 songs, they balance resiliency with humor, strength with empathy, and nostalgia with a modern mentality.
This journey begins as Carlile and Shires greet us with their harrowing voices on “Highwomen,” the rest of the group extending the welcome with their own stunning vocals. The song serves as a protest anthem that could’ve been written in the 1960s, yet is steeped in truth that’s still relevant today. Perseverance is at the song’s core as the group, along with the striking presence of Yola, revisit defining moments of history, telling the stories of survivors ranging from the Salem witch trials to the Freedom Riders fighting segregation. It’s here the group puts forth their mission statement, one conveying grace and power. “We’re the Highwomen / We sing of stories still untold / We carry the sons you can only hold / We are the daughters of the silent generations / You send our hearts to die alone in foreign nations / And may return to us as tiny drops of rain / But we will still remain,” they sing, joining in a triumphant moment.
Meanwhile, “Crowded Table” is pure empathy as The Highwomen make space for all people, standing loyally in their belief of acceptance and inclusivity. They demonstrate their desire to emit as much love as they receive through lyrics, “You can hold my hand / When you need to let go / Everyone’s a little broken / And everyone belongs,” their soaring harmonies carrying the message. As beautifully as they honor these qualities, they also inject humor into their work, like on the clever “Redesigning Women” that has them owning their decision to change their minds as much has their hair color, while still making bank and “breaking every jello mold.” Their sense of humor resurfaces in “My Name Can’t Be Mama,” an old-fashioned country swing song that has them bluntly admitting to fantasizing about a day off from motherhood. “It’s not that I don’t want to / I just don’t want to today / I’m not a fan of mornings / And I love my Chardonnay,” they sing with spirited euphony in such a way that one can’t help but smile.
While they’re undeniable in unison, each woman’s individual gifts shine throughout the album. For Carlile, it’s in “If She Ever Leaves Me,” the soulful “gay country song,” as described by co-writer Jason Isbell, that shows off Carlile’s distinct voice and its ability to capture heartache as she vulnerably admits that even if the relationship doesn’t work out, she knows her partner’s “careful heart” wouldn’t fall for the cowboy enamored by her.
As Carlile captivatingly tells her story, Morris follows her lead as she takes us on a journey through “Old Soul” about someone deeply connected to their humility. Morris becomes an oral story teller, one with the ability to bring tears to one’s eyes with the poetic lines, “I don’t fall in love every other minute / I don’t mind it taking its sweet time / I just know I know it when I see / Your soul like mine,” her voice filled with maturity and conviction as mystifying fiddle and acoustic guitar dance around her. Hemby’s glory moment takes place during “My Only Child.” Penned alongside Shires and Miranda Lambert, the emotional ode of holding on to precious memories of watching a first and only child grow up feels sacred in Hemby’s plaintive delivery. Shires evokes this same effect on the waning “Cocktail and a Song,” a piercing number that finds the lead character watching her father spend his final days nursing a bottle of tequila and firing up cigarettes, asking his daughter not to express sorrow or grief before he’s gone. The shaky tenderness in Shires’ voice hauntingly tells the story of someone finding humor and simple joy in the world before they leave it.
With The Highwomen, the trailblazing band steps with their strongest foot forward. The project is void of any filters or artificial flash, their voices so pure as they directly connect with the listener. The group’s poignant lyrics embrace honesty, observation and acknowledgement of the past with a grasp on a progressive future, making The Highwomen an important figure not only in music, but the modern world.