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September 2019, Week 2

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 		 [ A new supergroup — Highwomen — is making music with a
mission. They proudly call themselves a movement as much as a band,
whose mission is clear: solidarity, specifically with other women in
country music. Their debut album came out Friday.]
[https://portside.org/] 

 COUNTRY MUSIC IS A MAN’S WORLD. THE HIGHWOMEN WANT TO CHANGE THAT.
 
[https://portside.org/2019-09-12/country-music-mans-world-highwomen-want-change]


 

 Natalie Weiner 
 September 3, 2019
The New York Times
[https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/03/arts/music/highwomen-country-supergroup.html]


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 _ A new supergroup — Highwomen — is making music with a mission.
They proudly call themselves a movement as much as a band, whose
mission is clear: solidarity, specifically with other women in country
music. Their debut album came out Friday. _ 

 “We would sing sometimes, and I would get so excited I would almost
feel like being a ding-dong and crying,” said Amanda Shires. The
Highwomen, before their set at the Newport Folk Festival -, Brandi
Carlile, Amanda Shires, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby., Credit: Cody
O'Loughlin for The New York Times 

 

The Highwomen’s first-ever public performance went off so well at
the Newport Folk Festival in July that Nashville’s newest supergroup
repeated its laid-back, harmony-rich lead single, “Redesigning
Women,” as an encore. A standing ovation was inevitable: The
audience had been on its feet before the quartet stepped onstage.

The only snafu was a failed plan to give festivalgoers free tattoos
that said “Highwomen” in the same jagged scrawl already emblazoned
on band members Brandi Carlile
[https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/07/arts/music/brandi-carlile-grammy-nominations.html?module=inline] and
Amanda Shires — as well as Jason Isbell
[https://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/02/magazine/jason-isbell-unloaded.html?module=inline],
Shires’s husband and the group’s guitarist; Shires’s mother and
other musicians and friends. Rhode Island’s health department
wouldn’t give the band a permit unless it restricted the ink to the
festival’s V.I.P. area.

“That’s so class divided,” Carlile, 38, said the next morning
over a plate of bacon and greens, shaking her head as her bandmates
brainstormed ways to share the logo online so fans could get their own
tattoos. “Way off message.”

The Highwomen — Carlile, Shires, Natalie Hemby
[https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/18/arts/music/natalie-hemby-puxico-review.html?module=inline] and Maren
Morris
[https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/12/arts/music/maren-morris-girl-review.html?module=inline] —
proudly call themselves a movement as much as a band, one whose
mission is clear: solidarity, specifically with other women in
country music. Their self-titled debut album is out Friday.

 [https://youtu.be/5aSRpbLOfo0]

Listen here [https://youtu.be/5aSRpbLOfo0].

Individually, they’ve all found success. The breakout star Morris
(of the pop smash “The Middle”
[https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/22/arts/music/diary-of-a-song-the-middle-zedd-maren-morris-grey.html?module=inline])
earned her second country radio No. 1, “Girl,” the day after the
Newport performance. Hemby, one of Nashville’s most sought-after
songwriters, recently had two credits on the soundtrack for “A Star
Is Born.” Carlile is a veteran singer-songwriter who just won her
first three Grammys
[https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/10/arts/music/grammy-awards.html?module=inline],
including best Americana album, for “By the Way, I Forgive You.”
(Hemby calls her “Grammy Carlile.”) Shires, a vocalist and
violinist, has been a cornerstone of Americana music since first
playing with the Texas Playboys at 15.

But together, they’ve decided, they’re better — especially when
it comes to confronting the daunting task of helping women succeed as
artists in country.

The genre has a stark gender imbalance
[https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-country/women-country-radio-airplay-study-827675/].
“It’s the eternal question that no one’s figured out,” said
Morris, 29, picking at eggs Benedict. (“Tomato-gate,”
[https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/21/arts/music/kacey-musgraves-and-other-tomatoes-give-country-its-bite.html?module=inline] a
2015 controversy sparked by a remark about women being the tomatoes in
country radio’s salad, has been followed by statistics
[https://songdata.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/SongData-Watson-Country-Airplay-Study-FullReport-April2019.pdf] indicating
the percentage of women on country airplay charts is in steep
decline.) “Everyone blames somebody else. It’s the labels, it’s
the radio, it’s the publishers that don’t sign enough women
writers …”

Shires, 37, added, “And radio will blame the audience.” The
Highwomen concept was her idea, inspired by an informal research
project: While on tour, she wrote down every song she heard on the
radio to see if most were by men. Shires found not only that most
songs played were by men, but when she called to make requests, she
was directed to station Facebook pages where songs by female artists
were pitted against each other in polls. Only one could win.

Shires thought about who’d had luck subverting the expectations of
Nashville’s country machine — the outlaws, and specifically the
1980s supergroup the Highwaymen
[https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-country/the-highwaymen-the-fights-and-friendship-of-countrys-great-supergroup-184126/]:
Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson.
“Wanting to do things their own way is what we’re sort of trying
to mime,” said Shires. “And just to have somebody to share in the
glories with, you know? It can be kind of a lonely thing out there by
yourself.”

She approached Carlile first, boldly asking her to start a band called
the Highwomen the first time they met. The first song they wrote,
“Highwomen,” a reworked version of Jimmy Webb’s
“Highwayman,” sounds like a manifesto.

Highwomen - Official trailer

Listen here [https://youtu.be/7D-6nklMMbM].

“I just thought, what if it were all women who died in these
historically persecuted ways?” Carlile said. The first verse tells
the story of a Honduran asylum-seeker who died trying to cross the
border; the second of a healer burned at the stake in the Salem witch
trials; the third of a Freedom Rider (sung by the British country-soul
singer Yola); the fourth of a female preacher. “We’ll come back
again, and again, and again,” the group sings in the chorus, a
haunting, powerful tribute to the resilience of women through the
ages.

If talking openly about immigration, racism and sexism is unappealing
to conservative country listeners, the Highwomen don’t mind. “My
existence is political: I was married before it was legal in the
States,” said Carlile, who is gay. “I don’t know how to not
write that into my music. The plight of displaced peoples is
absolutely fundamental to me and to my faith.”

Yola, who has faced additional challenges trying to break into country
music as a black woman, said that when she worked with the quartet,
“I didn’t feel like a token.” She added, “This felt like
a cross intersection of women — and in country music, of all the
places where you’re like, ‘That’s so white bro it’s out of
control.’” (Dolly Parton, who joined the group onstage at Newport,
was effusive as well: “It was a magic night all around,” she said.
“I will treasure it forever.”)

The Highwomen feel established in Nashville, but still worry about
striking the right tone: honest but not didactic, inspired but not
cloying.

“It’s really important that the lack of representation for women
in music doesn’t come across as some bougie, elitist problem,”
Carlile explained. “It’s regular people and regular little girls
in small towns that don’t get access to their story being told.”

Hemby, 42, recalled how Lilith Fair shaped her own understanding of
women in music. “Now when we get together to celebrate women, people
think we’re trying to fight,” she said. The group wears its ’90s
nostalgia on its sleeve: Sheryl Crow, one of the festival’s
mainstays and “one of the most underrated rock stars that we’ve
ever seen in this country,” according to Carlile, plays bass on
“The Highwomen” and joined the band onstage at Newport.

The album’s stories show that writing songs for and about women is
first and foremost just writing songs about people. The topics range
from motherhood at its most matter-of-fact (“My Name Can’t Be
Mama”) to its most gut-wrenching (“Only Child,” co-written by
Miranda Lambert); love between two women (“If She Leaves Me”);
perhaps country’s oldest trope, a woman and a thankless man
(“Loose Change” and “Don’t Call Me”); death (“A Cocktail
and a Song,” Shires’ heartbreaking tribute to her father) and most
importantly, togetherness (“Crowded Table”).

“I want a house with a crowded table/and a place by the fire for
everyone,” the band sings in unison, a folksy but effective
translation of the kind of inclusiveness they’re fighting for.

The Highwomen’s sound is defiantly old-school, bred of not just
classic country (the aesthetic touch point of their superproducer
Dave Cobb
[https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/20/arts/music/dave-cobb-wrangling-rough-country-beasts-toward-nashville.html?module=inline],
also behind the rise of Chris Stapleton, among others) but maximalist
1970s rock. For inspiration, Shires brought a trifold poster board
covered with black-and-white photos of Joan Jett and the Runaways into
RCA’s Studio A, where they recorded the album live on vintage
microphones instead of piece by piece.

“We all faced each other in the room at RCA, and I just found that
so human — being able to blend a harmony with someone because you
can see their face,” said Morris, who typically operates in
Nashville’s more commercial circles. (She got the call to join the
group when she was backstage at Jimmy Fallon’s show; around six
years ago, Hemby had phoned her from a Kroger parking lot to say she
loved her work.)

Shires said each musician knew when she was doing the right thing.
“Music was happening in the room, and you could almost touch it,”
she said. “It hadn’t happened for me in a long time. We would sing
sometimes, and I would get so excited I would almost feel like being a
ding-dong and crying.”

That comfort and warmth is what the Highwomen want to translate to
their audience, inviting all kinds of listeners aboard what they call
their “pirate ship” and taking their mutual admiration society
public. In conversation, the group has an easy rapport that blends
self-deprecating jokes with sincere praise for each other’s work and
ideas. Everyone credits Hemby, for example, with the suggestion to
sing together instead of only in harmonies.

“When we were in the studio doing our unison thing, it sounded so
good,” Shires said. “We all looked at each other thinking, ‘This
is what the people can do. They can sing with us, and we’ll all be
unified, together.’”

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