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The Highwomen – The Highwomen Review

September 12, 2019 | Posted by David Hayter
The Highwomen
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The Highwomen – The Highwomen Review  

Supergroups are equal part blight and blessing. Like it or not, the union of three or four famous artists ensures an undue amount of media attention for projects that are often hare-brained and half-arsed.  For every revelation (the Travelling Wilburys and Cream, for example), there’s The Power Station, Superheavy, Damnocracy, Lou Reed + Metallica, Asia…okay, okay, okay…you get the picture. Suffice to say there are more hits than misses when it comes to all-star collaborations, but there is one genre where this rule is routinely broken: country music.

The reason for country’s success is obvious; the entire genre is based on collaboration. From its rich history of songwriters and sessions musicians to its love of interlocking conversational narratives, the Nashville sound is built on the back of communal creativity. The small town experience is reflected in an industry where, as Kacey Musgraves put it, “somebody’s mama knows somebody’s cousin and somebody’s sister knows somebody’s husband”.  Take any two of your favourite country records and chances are Six Degrees Of Separation will be two or three degrees too many.

From their origin story to their very name, The Highwomen – Marren Morris, Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile and Natalie Hemby – are steeped in both classic country and supergroup culture. Their moniker, album and opening track are a direct reference to The Highwaymen: an 80s supergroup made of songwriting legends Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson (now that ladies and gentlemen is a SUPERGROUP).

Suffice to say, for all their considerable plaudits, The Highwomen are not household names (although Marren Morris is approaching superstardom) and they certainly do not represent the mount Rushmore of modern female fronted country (Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves certainly outrank them, with the former already fronting The Pistol Annies). Instead, like The Highwaymen before them, the women represent the union of four distinct voices and songwriting approaches, brought together by a shared bond and hardship. The Highwomen seek, rather than to establish an outlaw canon, to make a bad-arse collaborative country record that tell tales from the female perspective – think childbirth, housework, beauty regiments and lesbian love stories as well as the usual mix of death, poverty and hard-living on the road.

The opening track is an absolute stunner: a direct rewrite of “Highwayman”. Back in 1985, the country icons of yesteryear roleplayed an ill-fated bandit, scooner sailor, dam builder and spaceman (yes, really, Johnny Cash the astronaut) – finding their glory and legend in death. The Highwomen tell a more sorrowful tale: a woman dying while fleaing the Sadinstas with her family, a healer hung in Salem for being a witch, a freedom rider shot dead in Mississippi and a preacher killed for being a female educator. Of course it’s far too on the nose, just as the original was farcically silly, but that’s where the track’s power lies – both songs stand proud in the face of potential embarrassment. For the remake, the jaw dropping twist comes at the death (literally): The Highwomen are the product of a silent generation who suffered so they’d have a chance to prosper. The message is not that their legend will endure, with the exception of the freedom rider, these women died without fanfare or anything resembling glory. Instead, the track is solemn in its commitment to do what needs to be done as long as it needs doing (“I’d take that ride again and again and again”). They’d die over and over and over again to give their children a better life.

Sadly the shot for shot remake ends there. “The Last Cowboy Song” doesn’t get its 21stCentury female fronted makeover. Instead, the album splinters as each track takes the image of its principle songwriter. Hemby’s fingerprints are all over lead single “Redesigning Women”. She has plenty of experience working alongside Miranda Lambert to produce some of the punchiest and sassiest numbers in that singer’s catalogue, and it shows. The track is surreal. Lyrically its an absolute riot, as it playfully discusses how women’s fashions and expectations change even as women’s work remains largely the same (“Rosie the riveter with renovations…running the world while cleaning up the kitchen”). The track knows how to have fun as it dramatically lurches from glasses of wine and shoe shopping to genuine heartfelt grievances. Sonically, it’s so strange to hear four unique female singers come together to do their best Miranda Lambert impersonation – all the voices are present and accounted for, but the result is eerily singular.

When Hemby takes the lead on the delicate and understated “My Only Child”, she dials back the pithy camp one-liners to offer a sincere windswept ballad. The track rests powerfully on its sense of isolation and the narrative is deeply personal (despite a Lambert and Shires co-write), Hemby is dwelling on those beautiful and entirely transitory parenting moments that can never be recreated (because children are always growing, grasping and moving on). Think a country repost to “Slipping Through My Fingers” by Abba. In a bizarre piece of sequencing, this touching and true moment is sandwiched between the daffy pitter-patter of Shires’ “Don’t Call Me” (a boisterous warning for a no-good-ex to stop calling) and “Heaven Is A Honky Tonk”.

The latter is a frankly ridiculous offering that feels like it should have been on The Highwaymen’s 1985 debut. Sheryl Crow jumps on a track that saunters and sways predictably before offering a rather plaintive and platitudinous verse. Then, out of the blue, a completely unearned and yet utterly divine chorus cuts straight through the mediocrity as Crow, Carlile and Hemby harmonize to coo: “there’s a Hallelujah on the lips of every dying man”. This is one of those tracks that only country could produce – a feel good song about death, based on the surety that the ailing will find relief in the after life.

For the less spiritual among us there’s Amanda Shires’ stellar showcase “Cocktail and a Song”, which oddly recalls Brandon Flowers at his most painfully sincere. The story is simple: a daughter sits down with her father for a talk. She soon discovers his diagnosis is terminal and he is adamant that does not want the indignity of being mourned while he is still alive (“don’t you go grieving, not before I’m gone”). Anyone who has dealt with death will understand this sentiment. Nothing is more soul destroying to the sickly than being treated like a tragic and hopeless case. Shires’ tackles the grave subject with humanity, charm and humor. Honestly, good luck finding a better opening line in all of 2019 than: “Daddy passed me his bottle of tequila, said, ‘Time is running out, we’ve gonna have to pretend it’s a margarita’”. The devil is very much in the detail as Shires’ grieving process is captured in her refusal to allow even the most minuscule of minutia slip past her eagle eye (“He had his lighter on a leash and menthols in his shirt pocket”). Shires is in pain, but she’s also desperate to remember – no scratch that – to not forget a single thing.

The trouble with supergroup records is that, while it’s most certainly not a competition, it almost always ends up feelingthat way. Surrounded by such strong and distinct voices Maren Morris, who has tremendous potential despite some pandering missteps, finds herself fronting some of the album’s more anonymous offerings. “Old Soul” attempts to address her youth, but with the exception of the odd good line (“I fix my mama’s problems like a habit, my daddy’s too”) the track seems caught between a fantasy (she’s had to give up the excitement of youth in favor of responsibility) and lines that feel hollow and hipster-ish (“I listen to vinyl for the scratches”). It’s tastefully composed, but painfully plain. “Loose Change” is better. Its premise is certainly powerful – a lover disregarding Morris and treating like a run of the mill possession (“you don’t see my value”), but despite a snappy bridge, the track feels shallow. The peppy arrangement suggests that the artists recognised this fact, but compared to the earthy lived-in pain showcased on this record, Morris’ loser boyfriend feels like, well, “Loose Change”.

The trouble with supergroup records is that, while it’s most certainly not a competition, it almost always ends up feeling that way. Surrounded by such strong and distinct voices Maren Morris, who has tremendous potential despite some pandering missteps, finds herself fronting some of the album’s more anonymous offerings. “Old Soul” attempts to address her youth, but with the exception of the odd good line (“I fix my mama’s problems like a habit, my daddy’s too”) the track seems caught between a fantasy (she’s had to give up the excitement of youth in favor of responsibility) and lines that feel hollow and hipster-ish (“I listen to vinyl for the scratches”). It’s tastefully composed, but painfully plain. “Loose Change” is better. Its premise is certainly powerful – a lover disregarding Morris and treating like a run of the mill possession (“you don’t see my value”), but despite a snappy bridge, the track feels shallow. The peppy arrangement suggests that the artists recognised this fact, but compared to the earthy lived-in pain showcased elsewhere on this record, Morris’ loser boyfriend feels like, well, “Loose Change”.

Carlile’s lead credits are a mixed bunch. She certainly favors plain-but-pleasant arrangements that largely adhere to convention, but she knows how to spice up the overly-familiar with a sly lyric sheet. “My Name Can’t Be Mama” threatens to succumb to beigeness despite an intriguing subject – rockstar women on the road resisting the allure of a family life. There are some fabulous and insightful lines, but it should cut deeper. Perhaps it would, were we given three whole verses from either Carlile or Shires’ perspective, rather than splitting the narrative into three tantalising, but unfulfilled introductions.

The grand closer, “Wheels Of Laredo”, is a crafty attempt to reconcile the album’s resolution with its opening. The themes are eerie similar – a dream of escape to somewhere (anywhere!) better, stifled. Rather than the death that greeted “The Highwomen”, the protagonist of “Wheels Of Laredo” is granted no release and is simply trapped running in place, dreaming of emigrating and autonomy. It’s less tragic than the opener, but equally powerful. This is a very ordinary ache. The trouble with the track is not the performance, nor the slightly canned arrangement, but the fact that it absolutely pales in comparison to Tanya Tucker’s original. There’s no substitute for experience and Tucker’s voice is ripe with all the cracks and croaks of her 60 years, and it’s that age that injects so much unspoken sorrow into the composition. Carlile is a quality singer, but nothing garners empathy quite like imagining a poor 60-year-old working woman stuck in one pitiful town for an entire life time as she yearns to reconnect with her lover.

“If She Ever Leaves Me” is an intriguing cut. Written by Shires and her husband Jason Isbell, the track takes the perspective of a lesbian lover watching her bow being chatted up by a cocksure cowboy. There are some fun putdowns (“She’ll drink your liquor and leave you the ice”), but the heart of the track is pure adoration and unrelenting confidence in the one you love, even when you’ve had to hide it away (“I’ve loved her in secret, I’ve loved her out loud”). Isbell acknowledges that this lovely song was originally written from a heterosexual perspective, but he thought it’d be cool to right a gay love song and Carlile gave him her approval, saying it rang true – and, to be fair, it does.

All in all, The Highwomen are a genuine revelation – in large part because they’ve written a thoughtful, evocative, honest-to-goodness country record. There might be some gloss and plenty of peppery punchlines, but from the instrumentation to the historical reference points this is a celebration of traditional American forms and centuries old agony. Great swathes of the album are truly sublime even if the overall project falls someway short of greatness. Bland productions, crowded narratives and a noticeable lack of experience on tracks extolling just that virtue, take the edge ever-so-slightly off a wonderful collection.

Here’s to hoping they follow in The Highwaymen’s footsteps and we get a sequel in five years time (perhaps by then it’ll be Amanda Shires’ turn to “fly a starship across the universe divide” – no I’m not kidding, that is a Johnny Cash lyric).

7.0
The final score: review Good
The 411
A handful of bland compositions, a slight lack of experience and some narrative crowding ever-so-slightly undermine an otherwise sublime collection. The Highwomen start by rewriting a supergroup classic from a female perspective and they never look back. This is a proper, gimmick-free, classic country record full of powerful reflections on motherhood, death, desolation and dating. The record is somber, but never sober. So enjoy the chardonnay, shopping sprees and failed romances on a rooting-tooting record that's thoughtful and, most of all, fun.
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The Highwomen, David Hayter