This article is about The Highwomen movement and how the group has changed the game for country music.
The Highwomen is a country music group composed of singers Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires. In 2016, Shires had the idea to create an all-female country group paying homage to the legendary Highwaymen country group that consisted of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson. At the same time, there was a severe lack of representation of female artists on country music radio and at country music festivals, which had been widely discussed at the time – influenced by the Me Too movement. While on tour, Shires listened to country radio, and kept a list of artists – noticing there were very few women. She then called to request they play more female artists, and was redirected to a Facebook page lottery system. That’s when Shires music producer, Dave Cobb, recommended she call Carlile, who thought the project was creative and sounded interesting. The 2 women then approached the writer of the Highwayman theme song, Jimmy Webb, to get his blessing on their new version of his old song. Once this happened, the Highwomen were officially on their way, and that’s when Carlile recruited Morris. Then, in his capacity as their producer, Cobb asked Hemby, who was one of his favourite Nashville songwriters to create some songs for the group. One of the titles Hemby wrote Redesigning Women with frequent collaborator Rodney Clawson, and is an excellent example of what the band is all about: women from all walks of life meeting challenges and opportunities head-on, and meeting both success and failure with poise and dignity.
Soon after, the trio approached Hemby and asked her to join the group. When Hemby speaks about that moment later on, she said, “Man, 21-year-old Natalie was like, ‘Oh my GOD! I’m in a BAND!’ And, like, the band. And 42-year-old Natalie was going, ‘Um, I don’t know if I can do this, guys. I gotta make sure I can get a sitter for Friday.’ There was definitely a push-pull inside of me between, ‘Gosh, this scares the crap out of me’ and ‘Gosh, this is so exciting.’” Then the project was on its way… even if none of them really knew what “it” was – yet still something felt unique and special about this group of women. “I think it’s so interesting how we really are a band of women who have come together,” Hemby commented. “We aren’t a band who grew up together and all think alike. We are all different, from different backgrounds, with different personalities. But I think it’s so important for people to see us together because we are bridging different types of women. We all serve our purpose. We all have gifts and talents. And we’re not a bunch of catty bitches that everyone sees on TV.” Ultimately, this ragtag group of talented women ended up creating more than just a band – but a movement.
The Highwomen’s title track paved the way for this with its incredibly powerful message. It features Carlile, Shires, Hemby, and guest vocalist Yola – each taking a turn telling the tale of a woman who has been demonized and fatally penalized by society for who she is. Between the 5 women the song tells the tales of a mother who fled her worn torn country in search of a better life for her family, a healer accused of witchcraft, a Black woman who wanted to take a Greyhound from Virginia to Mississippi in the 60s, and a minister who just wanted to teach and serve her God. Each woman perishes at the hand of a broken system, unfair and inequitable societal norms, and a strong patriarchal foundation. The incredibly powerful and emotion-inducing lyrics sung by these 4 talented women helped build the foundation of the movement. According to Hemby, the fictional roles taken on by the women were created to reflect their lives and how they may have been persecuted if they lived in a different time or place in history. “Really, the heroes of today are people who are fighting social injustices, people who are reaching out to the poor and the broken,” Hemby notes. “We would be these people in real life. Yola is a whole spirit all to herself. When she sings that verse, it almost makes me cry, every single time, because I believe she would be one of those people who would be a Freedom Rider. Brandi is living her verse.”
Not all of The Highwomen’s songs are on the serious side though. One of their most popular songs, Redesigning Women, is a breath of fresh air – also focusing on the many roles of women and the lives they lead – but in a more light and humorous way. The lyrics were written in the spirit of true feminism – touching on many aspects of being a woman. From being a career woman or working mom to loving shoes and wine, The Highwomen’s song makes it seem like any and all forms and ideas of women should be accepted and appreciated. The song’s title is an amazing representation of what the song is really about – redesigning the way society, and women themselves view women. Each verse of the song focuses on driving this point home with lyrics like, “Full time livin’ on a half time schedule, always tryna to make everybody feel special, learnin’ when to break and when to hit the pedal, workin’ hard to look good till we die. A critical reason there’s a population, raisin’ eyebrows in a new generation, Rosie the Riveter with renovations, and it always gets better with wine.”
So far, the only real pushback against the group has been their obvious lack of diversity. The band consists of 4 white women, 1 of which is queer; but Hemby says that it wasn’t for lack of effort. “A lot of people were asked,” Hemby stated, adding, “people in different genres, people of different colours and different backgrounds. But the answer was, ‘No. I can’t commit to something like this.’ The core group came together with people who could really commit the time.” Hopefully in the future the group will be able to connect with artists that can add diversity and new perspectives to the band.