Music Review: The Highwomen
Few debut albums in recent memory have been received with such critical fanfare as the Highwomen’s self-titled effort, and for good reason. Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Maren Morris, and Natalie Hemby each have considerable songwriting and performing talents, and together they create a number of terrific songs that have you realizing what a supergroup of Loretta, Dolly, Patsy, and Emmylou might have sounded like. And with Dave Cobb at the mixing board, whose recent production credits include Chris Stapleton’s Traveller, Jason Isbell’s Southeastern, and Prine’s The Tree of Forgiveness, The Highwomen manages to pay musical homage to outlaw country without being overcome by nostalgia. No small feat.
Morris leads the women in singing “Loose Change” as the singer stands up for her value to a lover who has long since taken her for granted; Morris’s blending of emotional vulnerability and resilience still has me surprised this isn’t a Dolly cover. And “Crowded Table,” with its images of hospitality and welcome, is wonderfully crafted by all four Highwoman singing around a crowded mic. Hemby’s “Don’t Call Me” is a classic country rocker and “Heaven Is a Honky Tonk” makes something written by Ray LaMontagne actually sound fun.
But these are the true peaks of the album, and I find myself skipping the title track and “Redesigning Women” to get to them. That’s because the Highwomen have adopted a supergroup identity fundamentally derivative of the famous Highwaymen outfit of Cash, Willie, Kris, and Waylon. That move requires songwriting decisions to support it, and these tedious songs end up distracting from the very real talent on display elsewhere on the record. The album feels strained at times because the Highwomen are trying to simultaneously make a name for themselves while adopting a male group’s name and ethos. And the effort fails—perhaps not for the moment, but I doubt that this debut album will match the durability of the Cash/Nelson/Kristofferson/Jennings debut effort.
I realize this is something of a female Ghostbusters take and so I should explain myself. After all, I enjoyed the female Ghostbusters and thought it had some great moments. Ghostbusters had the advantage of a tried-and-true concept, an obvious plot, and some terrific actresses delivering laughs via one-line zingers and rib-splitting slapstick scenes. In my view, a lot of the criticism was just whinging. So what makes this album any different? Unlike a prefabricated narrative, a record is like a blank canvas; it offers artists the ability to address anything. Given that wide range of possibilities, what do you write about? What do you sing about? For The Highwomen, the answer is often contemporary political or social commentary too often reliant on the acceptable preferences of the moment.
The album’s title track exchanges the Highwaymen’s highwayman, sailor, dam builder, and astronaut for a refugee, a Salem witch-healer, a Freedom Rider, and a preacher; and if the lyrics weren’t direct enough, a new fifth verse is there to provide the moral insights that you might have been too obtuse to infer. “Redesigning Women,” another critically popular track, provides an anthem for the late-capitalist female who successfully manages a professional career, full care of the household, and Joanna Gaines-level home renovations. “Redesigning” deploys these images, which impose real burdens on both homemakers and professional women, without any interesting engagement, and ends up reifying these expectations when challenging them would have been more interesting, lyrically and morally. These tracks, and others on the album, don’t strike me as particularly brave lyrical efforts. Instead, many of these purported outlaw songs are written for a critical and popular audience that is already guaranteed to approve of them.
The Highwomen didn’t invent this kind of overwrought, hyper-relevant lyricism, though. Rather, their album is affected by something I’ve heard on other recent country albums. Jason Isbell’s latest efforts, both individually and with the 400 Unit, have suffered from the same didactic approach to songwriting that I find perplexing for an artist who wrote “Outfit” and “Decoration Day” a few days after he got out of diapers. Country music has a rich history of anthems and stories, with heroes and villains, but the legendary albums that have come out of Tennessee have rarely been so on-the-nose with moral instruction, even when singers dusted off their hymnals to record a Gospel album. This didactic turn from some of country music’s new legends has me reaching for a paragraph about a new kind of honky-tonk version of Socialist Realism, but I’ll spare the reader for now. After all, we still have Prine.
I would expect we have more of these kinds of albums headed our way. The broadly shared cultural understandings (good or bad) that had allowed singers to focus on the key elements of county aesthetics—lyrical narratives or songs of loss joined by tasteful Telecaster arrangements—have disappeared. In their absence, artists seek to fill the gap by alloying old musical forms with instruction in the new morality, whether it’s the celebration of political causes du jour of “Highwomen” or the lesbian clap-back track “If She Ever Leaves Me.” This tedious combination of aesthetics, ethics, and indeed religion will often feel pretentious, disjointed, and worse—boring.
None of this means that the album is unlistenable or unenjoyable. Aside from a handful of tracks that have been lauded by professional critics, it’s a good album, and on the whole a great first effort. While I might not return to listen through this album completely, some songs will stick with me and I’m glad for that. But I imagine I’ll be satisfied with the songs and heroines the Highwomen themselves love; if the Highwomen release another record I’ll lift the needle off Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind) and give it a listen.