In 1985, four male country superstars – Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson – teamed up to make their first album as The Highwaymen. The group took their name from a song by Jimmy Webb, and the quartet also covered tracks by Guy Clark and John Prine.
Amanda Shires created a female quartet in homage to The Highwaymen, and to help female artists to gain more airplay on country radio.
“I was inspired by my daughter, I think, because she was starting to show signs of wanting to play music maybe when she grows up. I thought the worst thing that could happen is she would go for country because there are only currently two women’s voices that you can actually hear.”Amanda Shires, on Ellen
She recruited powerful vocalist Brandi Carlile and rising star Maren Morris. The quartet was completed by Natalie Hemby, perhaps better known for writing songs for Little Big Town and Miranda Lambert.
The quartet debuted at Loretta Lynn’s 87th birthday concert in April 2019, and announced their debut album. Like The Highwaymen, they use Jimmy Webb’s song as the lead-off track. With Webb’s blessing, the verses are adapted to a female perspective – guest vocalist Yola’s verse is about the civil rights activists The Freedom Riders. Here’s a live version, with Yola, Sheryl Crow on backing vocals, and Shires’ husband, Jason Isbell, on lead guitar.
The Highwomen aren’t the first female country super-group of the decade – precedents include Lambert’s Pistol Annies and the 2016 collaborative record between Neko Case, K.D. Lang, and Laura Veirs. But the stakes are higher for The Highwomen with their choice of name. It’s clear the four Highwomen don’t have the profile of their male counterparts, but The Highwomen is a very strong collaborative record.
The timeless production from Dave Cobb is an asset, and the record is book-ended by two vintage sounding songs – opening with ‘Highwomen’, and closing with Carlile’s ‘Wheels of Laredo’. With its organ intro and evocative Texas imagery it sounds like an old country chestnut, and it was covered by Tanya Tucker shortly before the album release.
In between, the members each have a chance to shine; Hemby was The Highwoman who I wasn’t familiar with before the album’s release, but she’s impressive here. She penned the group singalong ‘Redesigning Women’ – one of the albums’ weaker songs, but it neatly summarises their mission. Hemby also fronts the beautiful ‘My Only Child’, which also showcases Shire’s beautiful fiddle playing. Shires’ ‘Cocktail and a Song’ addresses mortality, and it’s also among the strongest songs here.
The Highwomen draws attention to four talented artists who are struggling for attention in a world of bro-country and big hats. The Highwomen might just be too classy for mainstream country radio in the US, but it features some of my favourite songs of the year.