The Highwomen (Warner)
A friend of mine whose musical tastes are extremely adventurous and wide but had rarely run to country, latterly has been gorging on Dolly Parton. Especially her late ‘60/early ‘70s recordings. And he’s been quietly blown away by the frankness, the strength, and the proto-feminism of her work, and that of other related artists some of us have pointed him towards.
Weirdly perhaps from a 21st century perspective, in the 1960s, while pop and rock were settling into what would be their decades-long immersion in wedding tackle and body hair as the defining elements of “good” music, country music was far ahead in terms of recognising female songwriters and voices, and far more bold in subject matter than you’d find on the pop charts.
That didn’t last. It barely made it out of the 1960s.
Nowadays the country labels and radio - and to be fair, it should be noted a decent proportion of the conservative end of the audience – still prefer male voices, stories and perspectives. You could call it a reverse of the feminist slogan, a case of you can’t imagine what you don’t want to hear.
It’s a given to say this is ignorant when the world is moving on from such attitudes, but it’s downright stupid when so many of the best songs and albums in country have long come from female writers and performers. On their debut album The Highwomen address this by simultaneously ignoring it; address the political by reframing the personal.
This is an outlaw operation – the name casually appropriated from the ‘70s Highwaymen of Cash, Kristofferson, Nelson and Jennings, whose outlaw status reflected their preference for individuality and grit over spangles and formula, as much as their self-mythologising. Here, four women reflect their preference for stories of individuality and grit, communal experience and survival, truth and history, and do it through female eyes, female voices and female lives.
Amanda Shires and Maren Morris, whose debt to Parton is in both writing and voice, and Brandi Carlile and Natalie Hemby, whose attitude as much as songwriting, is a nod to her as well, are all writers of quality and fair success. They’re all singers of strength and depth as well, and their liking for and comfort in a style that feels old school but isn’t made to feel like hokum, is evident.
Those are the known knowns. The unknowns are established from the opening song, their rewritten take on Jimmy Webb’s The Highwayman, which in its original featured robbers, sailors, builders and astronauts butting against the harshest life offered in every generation.
Now, with guest vocalist Yola, they sing of Freedom Riders and Central American mothers, women accused of witchcraft in Puritan times and religious rebels. The settings change but the stories don’t: “I am still alive.”
Whether in Hemby’s drolly amusing mix of Dolly Parton & Loretta Lynn, Redesigning Women (“It always gets better with wine/Redesigning women, running the world while we’re cleaning up the kitchen”) where all four banter around the microphone, Shires’ last call ballad, Cocktail And A Song, or the country soul torch of Wheels Of Laredo (which Brandi Carlile co-wrote for Tanya Tucker’s recent return to the studio), the message is clear but never feels like its weighing down anything.
And that includes the pretty-as barroom song of heartsore warning, If She Ever Leaves Me, whose punchline to a man with expectations as strong as his cologne (please note, “she likes perfume”) is the pointed, “if she ever leaves me, it won’t be for you”.
These women make choices, they make mistakes, they “listen to vinyl for the scratches/And find myself in other people’s shoes”, they make lives. And they do it in alterna-truckdriving songs like Don’t Call Me, dancefloor swingers like My Name Can’t Be Mama, vocally lush moments such as Heaven Is A Honky Tonk, or country rock throwbacks like Crowded Table, which still feel like they’ve been touched by music since the 1990s, as much as Morris’ Old Soul is a very modern country turn that feels like it’s still got connections to days before anyone thought of “bro” anything.
Is all this rebellious? In truth the success of this album comes in the way the Highwomen show how it’s ridiculous that it might even be thought of as that, while celebrating the very fact that they are rebelling right under our noses. Tennessee’s Dolly Rebecca Parton would appreciate that.