The opening track of The Highwomen’s self-titled debut album proclaims that they’ll “be back again and again and again and again and again.” This hook, like much of the song’s instrumentation and storytelling, mirrors The Highwaymen’s 1985 theme song “Highwayman.” But in 2019, sung by women, these lyrics sound different. Simultaneously a rally cry for women in country music and a warning to the male-dominated industry, Maren Morris, Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby and Amanda Shires’s insistence that they aren’t going anywhere, and have been important all along, is refreshing.
The Highwomen’s roster doesn’t quite read like the country-music-Mount Rushmore that is The Highwaymen, and that’s the problem. Any four female artists popular in country music today have never been given the opportunity to reach their stature. By staking their own claim to greatness, and delivering an album to back it up, The Highwomen pave the way for more visibility, more inclusion, and more women-focused themes in the genre, something the “bro-country” era of the 2010s was overshadowing.
Answering how Morris’s country pop would mesh with Carlile’s Americana, the group’s first single, “Redesigning Women,” settles The Highwomen into a traditional-leaning, acoustic country sound that persists throughout the album. As all four members sing in unison about being women who do it all: “Making bank, shaking hands, driving 80 / Tryna get home just to feed the baby,” this track is the album’s heartbeat, giving life to the more specific tales of empowerment that follow.
“Loose Change” is one of those songs. Simple but catchy, Morris sings about knowing her worth. “Love is not supposed to be played like Monopoly” she cautions. The song plays with the extremes of a penny’s (and a person’s) value in another’s eyes, from being worthless when it’s “loose change” to being priceless when it’s “lucky.” And just like a penny, Morris suggests that a woman should “roll away” when she isn’t being treated nicely.
“If She Ever Leaves Me” finds Carlile in a bar, staring down a cowboy who’s been keeping an eye on her wife, and letting him know that even if they weren’t together anymore, her wife would never be with him. Queer country songs are possible, everyone! Carlile sounds as gorgeous as always, and it’s exciting to think that in a stereotypically homophobic genre, more explicitly LGBTQ-friendly songs are coming to light.
If you’re still pissed with someone you’ve given a few too many chances to (and also want to feel like you’re in an old Western film) “Don’t Call Me” will take you there. This song is the kind of funny you find pacing back and forth with your fists clenched. The verses and outro string together suggestions for how the person who said they “outgrew” Carlile and Shires should fix their mess without them. “Call your doctor … your lawyer … if you can afford one” Shires smirks. “Call your spiritual guide or mood enlightener, your tattoo artist.” She could go on.
But the absolute stand out of the album is “Cocktail and a Song.” Written and sung by Shires alone, she captures a conversation with her dad about his impending passing. It’s heartbreaking. “Don’t you let me see you cry, don’t you go grieving / Not before I’m gone” he tells her. But it’s also light-hearted. When Shires requests his “silver belt buckle and maybe (his) black Stetson hat” they both laugh, which makes the song sting even more.
Women of any country music era aren’t “around and around and around and around and around” like Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash are today, but The Highwomen demonstrate why they should be. It’s a shame that four individually strong artists had to come together to bring attention to women’s contributions to country music, because the excellence this supergroup demonstrates is nothing new. Still, one can’t help but feel lucky that they did decide to take a stand and release an album that stands up to their namesake. Now all we can do is look forward to when they “come back again” and keep rooting for them — and other women — in the meantime.