As if answering a distress call sent out over the airwaves or via a spotlight beamed over Music City, the Highwomen have assembled in the form of the Grammy-winning Brandi Carlile, fiddlemaster Amanda Shires, songwriting markswoman Natalie Hemby, and superstar Maren Morris. Together they will combine their musical superpowers to fight crime in the greater metropolitan Nashville area, work to right the injustices facing country women, and release a Dave Cobb-produced record on September 6th.
When Amanda Shires first let information on the supergroup slip prematurely, she assured the project would not be quote-unquote “man haters,” that the name was in homage to The Highwaymen and not about seeking altered states of consciousness, and most importantly, that this stuff would be country. Brandi Carlile was the primary co-conspirator, with Natalie Hemby and Maren Morris added later. Plenty of hype has preceded this super pairing, but now we get our first taste of what they’re all about with the song “Redesigning Women.”
Reminiscent of classic Loretta Lynn, but embellished pleasingly with multi-part part harmony indicative of the Trio superproject (Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris), the ladies of Highwomen make good on the promise to stay country, which was part of the inspiration for the side project by Shires and Carlile, who are much more Americana in their regular gigs, though are clearly influenced by country proper. Like the Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen moonlighting gig “Hold My Beer,” this is an opportunity for these women to showcase their true country love without any worry of upsetting established sounds or fan bases.
Written by Natalie Hemby and Rodney Clawson, the words of “Redesigning Women” are classic, frisky, and fun, once again calling mind to Loretta Lynn and the other classic women of country who often spoke to the strong females of rural America, juggling to keep a house, raise kids, and God forbid, find careers and passions of their own calling. These days any song with a strong feminine characters is going to be labeled “empowerment” or “fighting gender norms,” and will be underpinned with political motivations by the press. But this is against the spirit of music’s universal nature. Let the song speak for itself as opposed to making it something polarizing by presenting it as a middle finger to someone or something, destroying the chance of it to present an important perspective to someone before they even hear it, especially with a song like “Redesigning Women,” which is more about conveying a perspective as opposed to telling a story.
Dave Cobb’s production on “Redesigning Women” puts the voices of these ladies right out front where they’re supposed to be, and the slightly distressed recording style works well to give the song a classic feel. The only primary gripe is that this song doesn’t just call for pedal steel guitar, it screams for it, even seems to leave space for it, though it never comes. But the production and instrumentation are fine, with what sounds like Jason Isbell playing lead guitar, and some good twang from the Highwomen’s voices helping to set the country mood.
When some purists see the list of participants in this supergroup, they may start humming to themselves the old ditty, “One of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn’t belong…” But if Maren Morris wants to participate in some actual country music, why not let her? Her presence here will help bring in more fans, and who knows, maybe help convert them to more quality music. Morris certainly hasn’t been particularly friendly to the traditional side of country recently, and polarized fans have the right to be leery of her participation. But they’re also being foolish if they react to a name as opposed to the music itself, which if “Redesigning Women” is any indication, sounds promising so far.
And Natalie Hemby should not be considered the unknown quantity here, she’s the Ace in the Hole, and maybe in the position to most benefit from the attention this supergroup is receiving, even though she might be one of the most accomplished of the group as a behind-the-scenes songwriter. The Highwomen also say this project is not just about them, but about all the women in the country and roots realm, with Wynonna Judd, Tanya Tucker, Hailey Whitters, Cam, Lily Hiatt, Erin Rae, RaeLynn, Natalie Stovall, and others making appearances in the song’s video. There’s also some important guys involved in this effort, including Jason Isbell, Brandi Carlile’s twins Tim and Phil Hanseroth, and songwriter Jimmy Webb. Taking a look at the songwriting credits (see below), they also include Lori McKenna, Miranda Lambert, and Ray LaMontagne. This may be a side hustle, but a lot of effort went into this Highwomen material.
More will be determined on if The Highwomen can live up to the high standards some of country music’s other supergroups in the past like The Highwaymen and Trio when they release their self-titled album on September 6th. But “Redesigning Women” is definitely a good start.
1 3/4 Guns Up
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THE HIGHWOMEN TRACK LIST