Four women sit in a circle at historic RCA Studios in Nashville, Tenn. Like four moons orbiting the sun, they surround a fifth woman standing in the center. With long blond locks and an instantly recognizable voice, Dolly Parton belts her landmark song, “I Will Always Love You,” as the other women, starstruck, muster up the courage to harmonize. It’s the first time Parton has returned to RCA Studios since she recorded the iconic hit, along with her career-defining song “Jolene.”
Like Parton, the other four women in the room cannot be pigeon-holed. Hailing from various backgrounds, ideas and musical approaches, they’re as different as their diverse fashion choices might lead you to believe. But these four women have two core tenants in common: They all love Country music, and they believe women belong there.
Enter The Highwomen—a Country supergroup made up of Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby. Like their male counterparts in The Highwaymen—featuring Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson—The Highwomen are banding together at a pivotal time in history to promote the female voice.
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At a point where talk of women in Country music is at a fever pitch, The Highwomen’s debut couldn’t arrive at a better time. While they rehearsed with Parton at RCA Studios in advance of their live debut at Newport Folk Festival (the only date on their touring schedule thus far), they’ve also premiered original music on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and made an appearance at Loretta Lynn’s star-studded birthday bash. Their recent performances culminated in the release of a 12-track self-titled LP that boasts co-writing credits from all four members, as well as lyrical heavy-hitters like Rodney Clawson, Lori McKenna, Jason Isbell, Laura Veltz, Miranda Lambert and Ray LaMontagne, among others.
After taking a drive in the Tennessee hills with the dial tuned to Country radio and noting the continued lack of female voices represented, Shires cold-called Carlile, and asked if she’d be interested in forming a band. From there, The Highwomen’s genesis set off a chain reaction. Carlile, who recently collaborated with Morris on “Common,” asked the rising superstar to join the lineup.
Meanwhile, Hemby, who’s well-known for penning four-part harmonies for Little Big Town, was originally tapped to contribute songs for the project. But when Carlile heard Hemby’s demos, she immediately invited her to sing on the recording. Their in-studio session prompted Carlile and Shires to convince Hemby to become the final feather in The Highwomen cap. Hemby was reluctant at first. That is until she found out The Highwomen would be singing with Dolly at Newport Folk Festival.
“I’m a huge Dolly Parton fan. I mean, it’s not every day you get to meet, let alone sing, with Dolly. I had butterflies in my stomach; my legs were shaking. It was a real Cinderella moment for me,” Hemby says of the chance to perform with her musical hero. “She’s the highest of the high, a cut above.”
Taking cues from Parton’s brash fearlessness and emotional storytelling vignettes, The Highwomen selected songs for their debut that reflect the dichotomy, irony and beauty of being a woman.
“We wanted to make an awesome record as an ode to women,” Hemby shares, “We wanted to not just write love songs, but songs about our struggles, our fears and our more hilarious moments. We kind of just want to hold the door open for other girls.”
The Highwomen opened the door visually with the release of lead single “Redesigning Women,” written by Hemby and Clawson. The song’s official music video literally sets fire to society’s unrealistic expectations of women and features cameos from a wide variety of female artists.
Credit: The Highwomen; Photo credit: Alysse Gafkjen
“We live in a world where everyone’s trying to make us compete against one another. We’re not competing. We’re all four one voice. Honestly, we’re living out what we’re preaching,” Hemby acknowledges of The Highwomen. “We have to root for each other. I think that’s kind of what our big mission statement is—to love each other and to embrace all of our differences as women.”
The Highwomen are an unlikely combination. Of the four, Hemby and Morris knew each other best, having written together for Morris’ acclaimed albums. While the others knew of one another, they hadn’t collaborated previously.
Hemby thoughtfully contemplates the four respective personalities in the group before detailing what they each uniquely bring to the table. “Brandi’s our wide receiver,” she says resolutely. “You drive the ball to her. She wants to score a touchdown, and she will. She is such a champion of women… If you have an idea, she will take it and just blow it up.”
She describes the group’s forerunner, the whimsical Shires, as “a creative outlier.” Shires’ keen sense of authenticity has been a guiding force for the foursome. “She wants to do things straight from the heart. If it feels contrite at all, she doesn’t like it,” Hemby observes. “If everyone’s facing forward, she’s the one who’s going to face a different direction. She marches to the beat of her own drum—and it’s a really good beat.”
Then there’s Morris—the youngest of the ensemble, but the one Hemby claims might just be the most mature of the four. “Maren is very practical. For someone her age, sometimes I feel like she’s the oldest and wisest,” Hemby asserts. “She has a gift of being able to speak her mind kindly and curtly. She always makes everybody feel welcome.”
Hemby pauses when asked where she fits with The Highwomen. “I’m the alarmist—sort of an outsider,” she decides. “I watch all of the moving parts, then if I feel like I should speak up, I do.”
Of the four, she’s the least experienced on stage. Although she’s written massive hits behind closed doors for artists like Miranda Lambert and Little Big Town, among others, Hemby is more accustomed to the background than the limelight.
“Usually in a band, people are trying to push each other back. That’s one thing about these three,” Hemby says of her fellow Highwomen, “they have never made me feel like I don’t have a say in this band. They’ve never made me feel like I’m in the background. They’ve pushed me to the front, which is very kind.”
Across The Highwomen’s debut, although they trade lead vocals, no one group member stands out. Instead, their united front takes center stage, their four-part harmonies as tight as if they’d been singing together for years. At times, they even choose to sing in unison—an intentional move reflecting the band’s ideals.
Under the skilled production prowess of Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton), songs like “Loose Change,” “Heaven Is A Honky Tonk” and “Cocktail And A Song” cleverly poke fun at real life through vivid storytelling. Other selections, like “Crowded Table” and “Old Soul,” provide space for pensive reflection on both the responsibility and the purpose females innately possess. Additional tracks, like the witty “My Name Can’t Be Mama” and the nostalgic “My Only Child,” elevate motherhood in all its glorious struggle and stunning beauty.
The Highwomen’s introductory album is the perfect blend of its contributors: Shires’ left-of-center perspective, Carlile’s warm presence, Morris’ pop sensibilities and Hemby’s storytelling gifts. Musically, the dozen tracks rip a page right out of Parton’s songbook—all at once traditional, yet progressive; finding middle ground in the “what’s old is new again adage,” and perfecting a musical palette that never goes out of style.
Regardless, their aim is less female empowerment and more authentic stories told from a female perspective. Less a smash at radio and more a forged path for all women.
“I don’t know if we’ll break down all the doors at Country radio,” Hemby offers. “I don’t know if that will ever happen—I’m not sure—but I don’t think we’ll ever stop knocking.”
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