The Sept. 6 release of the eponymously titled “The Highwomen” comes with lofty aims. Country/Americana Grammy Award winner Brandi Carlile declared: “To me, this is more of a movement than a band. It’s so much bigger than the four of us — and I have personal aspirations to take (The Highwomen) into a space where it’s coming together for all great women’s music.”
Carlile, out as a lesbian since 2002, has been defying country music stereotypes for two decades. This past February, she used the nationally-televised Grammy Awards show to deliver a lyrics-scrawled-across-the-screen version of "The Joke," her table-turning anthem of hope for the marginalized.
Joining Carlile in the Highwomen’s vocals are country/Americana leading lights Amanda Shires, Natalie Hemby and Maren Morris. Their 12-song album, is a shout-out for women’s voices in country music to be fully heard, and a call for the empowerment of women and minorities in the world at large.
Leading off their album with the Highwomen anthem, they recount the stories of four women martyrs: a woman fleeing Honduras who perished while getting her children safely across our southern border, a Salem healer hung on the gallows after being branded a witch, a 1961 civil rights movement Freedom Rider murdered on a southbound Greyhound bus, and a woman preacher killed for being the wrong gender to do faith work. Each woman declares that she is still alive. The track ends with a vow: “We'll come back again and again.”
The song is a direct re-write — bearing the songwriter’s blessing — of "Highwayman," a 1980s Jimmy Webb tune sung by “outlaw” country stars Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. Carlile and Highwomen partner Shires saw a pressing need for a woman’s counterpart song.
"The problem is that country music is the story of rural America being told through music. And right now, only one half of the human race’s story is being told," Carlile told the Seattle Times.
The remaining songs in the album fulfill the project’s goals. The cleverly-written "Redesigning Women," aimed at being a chart-topper, is chock-full of humor and wordplay, while seriously proclaiming an identity for the pressure-packed woman doing almost everything: “Rosie the Riveter with renovations.” “Crowded Table” is a two-fold call for both a warm and lovingly inclusive home, and activism in the world at large. Several songs are set in the context of a relationship between two women; others reject second-class status in women's relationships with men.
The closing song, “Wheels of Laredo," has a message not to be overlooked. Written by Carlile with her bandmates Tim and Phil Hasenroth, it’s a soulful ballad expressing a longing to be with a woman who lives south of the border. The Rio Grande separates them physically; so does something else. That barrier is not named, but the singer declares that it would require the flight of a white-crowned sparrow to transcend.
What sort of movement are Carlile and company out to build? The LGBTQ community has long held Carlile as a role model; the project is a clear call-out on behalf of all those marginalized in a white male supremacist culture. It is male-inclusive. Note the presence in the band of Jason Isbell, the Alabama-born spouse to Shires. Isbell is also an acclaimed performing songwriter, and his “White Man’s World” is a fiery denunciation of white male privilege.
The Highwomen mission includes getting substantially more airplay on country stations for a host of women performers. There are about 6,800 English-language music radio stations in the U.S., and about 2,000 of them feature a country format. Shires has identified a pattern resembling quotas for women singers on some country stations; the term “bro country” has been offered with sadness and anger about this male dominance. The Highwomen and their music pushes back directly on that and calls for a response.
Is there an audience for the Highwomen on the other 4,800 stations? Most of them feature music somewhere on the pop/rock music spectrum. What is it that precludes most country artists and albums from crossing over to this larger audience?
Let’s start with the fact that “country music” has been walled off into its own space, much as the now-defunct “race music” category left black artists and their work separated from the mainstream. Contemporary folk music founder Woody Guthrie sang using a great deal of his native Oklahoma twang, but most of “Woody’s Children” — the generation of folk artists who followed him — used an inflection and speech pattern heard in urban coffee houses and college campuses, not Oklahoma oil fields. And most of contemporary white American rock music is sung in region-neutral inflection.
Vocal inflection has impact.
“Studies have shown that whether you are from the North or South," writes neuroscientist R. Douglas Fields. “A Southern twang pegs the speaker as comparatively dimwitted, but also likely to be a nicer person than folks who speak like a Yankee. Stereotypes based on accent are deep rooted and they have profound consequences.”
It therefore speaks volumes that the Highwomen chose Newport, Rhode Island, over Nashville as the locale for their one public performance to date. The women are seeking to broaden their base to include an urban audience that doesn’t frequently hear country music. Their July 27 performance at the steeped-in-history Newport Folk Festival, joined by country icon Dolly Parton, received a tremendous ovation. Will other urban audiences embrace them as well?
There are now less than six months to go before the first caucuses and primaries of the monumental 2020 American presidential and congressional elections. Might the Highwomen movement become involved in electoral politics?
Shires has been talking to the others about Emily’s List, the political action committee working to elect liberal and progressive women to office. Carlile is hardly apolitical: “My existence is political: I was married (in Canada to a woman partner) before it was legal in the States. … The plight of displaced peoples is absolutely fundamental to me and to my faith.”
For the movement to succeed, urban-based residents will need to give up their stereotypes about country music. The genre of country/Americana is producing some of the very best political and cultural statements of this era, and attempts to pigeonhole and demean music sung with rural inflection has got to end. The Highwomen and their pioneering country music-delivered feminist message may just have the extraordinary talent and power to pull us along that road.
Ron Malzer is a retired psychologist, who now writes political and musical commentary. He welcomes communication at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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