Inside the Making and the Movement of the Highwomen

When Newport Folk Festival’s executive director Jay Sweet addressed the fans gathered at the Quad Stage at 5:35 pm on July 26 of this year, he said, “You’re the first people anywhere to ever hear these words, ‘Ladies and gentleman, please welcome the Highwomen!’” The crowd erupted as Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires swaggered out in their personalized Manuel suits. They were nervous, and visibly so, having built up to this moment for months, but the audience had their backs, remaining on their feet for the entire 65-minute set.

Their live debut, new album, and origin story all begin the same way — with “Highwomen.” It’s an idea Shires had in 2016 to play on the name and notion behind the outlaw country supergroup comprised of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson, whose own “Highwaymen” theme song was written by Jimmy Webb. When Shires mentioned her big idea to producer Dave Cobb, he pointed her in Carlile’s direction, and off to see Webb did Shires and Carlile go. With his treasured blessing on their new version of his old song, the Highwomen were officially on the road to somewhere, so Carlile immediately recruited Morris.

As part of his producer duties, Cobb asked one of his very favorite Nashville songwriters to craft some songs for the group, with a special request for something “fun” along the lines of “9 to 5.” Having had a couple of titles in her pocket for a while, Hemby cranked out “Redesigning Women” with frequent collaborator Rodney Clawson, followed by “Crowded Table,” which she co-wrote with Carlile and Lori McKenna. Those two tunes frame the mission statement of the band — women run the world and do so with equal parts grit and grace, humor and humility.

Those contributions, and a hearty alto, also got Hemby invited into the band. When they asked her to join, she thought they were joking, and they didn’t think she was taking them seriously. “Brandi and Amanda came up to me, kind of getting in my face, and were like, ‘Hey, do you want to be in our band?’ And I… I didn’t say ‘yes,’” Hemby laughs.

“I’m not stupid. I knew there was more to this question, so I said, ‘What do you mean? Are you serious?’” She thought they were just being nice to her because of the songs. Noting Hemby’s hesitance, Shires told her she could think about it. Hemby prodded further, asking what the plan was, to which Shires replied that they wanted to make the record and debut the project at Newport with Dolly Parton. That last bit sealed the deal: “Okay, I’m in,” Hemby eagerly replied.

“Man, 21-year-old Natalie was like, ‘Oh my GOD! I’m in a BAND!’ And, like, the band. And 42-year-old Natalie was going, ‘Um, I don’t know if I can do this, guys. I gotta make sure I can get a sitter for Friday.’ There was definitely a push-pull inside of me between, ‘Gosh, this scares the crap out of me’ and ‘Gosh, this is so exciting.’”

But, yeah, they sorted it out. Even then, no one was quite sure what “it” was. Carlile calls “it” a “loose collective of women,” one wherein they have their own careers filled with Grammy Awards, sold-out tours, and platinum records. And it is that. “I chuckle to myself because I’m in a band with three superstars,” Hemby, the self-proclaimed soccer mom, confesses. “I took my kid to go to a trampoline thing and [Morris’s] ‘The Middle’ came on, and I just laughed to myself, thinking, ‘That’s my bandmate.’ It’s just hilarious to me. I feel like the kid in Almost Famous who gets to go on tour with the cool band for the summer.”

Everyone involved has known all along that there is something very, very special about this particular joining of forces. As Shires and Carlile have said from the beginning, the Highwomen is more than just a band; it’s a movement. And there are matching tattoos and necklaces to prove it. “I think it’s so interesting how we really are a band of women who have come together,” Hemby notes. “We aren’t a band who grew up together and we all think alike. We are all different, from different backgrounds, with different personalities. But I think it’s so important for people to see us together because we are bridging different types of women. We all serve our purpose. We all have gifts and talents. And we’re not a bunch of catty bitches that everyone sees on TV.”

While it may seem odd for an artist to come off a Grammy hat trick and form a band, using her own light to allow others to shine is quintessential Carlile, as is using her platform to amplify forgotten voices, which the Highwomen do with their title track. In it, Carlile, Shires, Hemby, and guest vocalist Yola each take a verse telling the tale of a woman who has been demonized and punished by the patriarchy simply for being who she is. Respectively, they inhabit the lives of a refugee, a doctor, a minister, and an activist, each killed either accidentally or intentionally for their perceived lawlessness. It’s a poignant and puissant foundation upon which to build a movement, particularly as women continue to die at the hands of male fragility from things like starving and stoning.

It’s made even more powerful by the fact that those fictional identities line up so brilliantly with each singer’s real life. Anyone who knows Shires can affirm the fact that she has a healing quality about her, and Hemby, while not a preacher, considers herself “a pray-er.” Meanwhile, Carlile does work with refugees around the world and Yola fights for civil rights every day of her life.

“Really, the heroes of today are people who are fighting social injustices, people who are reaching out to the poor and the broken,” Hemby says. “We would be these people in real life. Yola is a whole spirit all to herself. When she sings that verse, it almost makes me cry, every single time, because I believe she would be one of those people who would be a Freedom Rider. Brandi is living her verse.”

The rest of the album, though, isn’t all about sticking it to the proverbial man. Instead, it’s about stepping into the contemporary woman, in all her many glories, from playful to poised to pointed. “We weren’t interested in writing male-bashing songs,” Hemby says. “We just wanted to write songs about women — the hilarity and struggle of our lives.”

Motherhood, alone, lives in both the spirited take that is “My Name Can’t Be Mama” and the tender spin that is “My Only Child.” Knowing your worth makes a sassy stand in both “Loose Change” and “Don’t Call Me,” while facing parental mortality breaks even hardened hearts in “Cocktail and a Song” and embracing emotional maturity rings beautifully true in “Old Soul.”

Photo by Alysse Gafkjen

When placed in Carlile’s hands, “If She Ever Leaves Me” (written by Shires with Jason Isbell and Chris Tompkins) becomes what may well be the first-ever, out loud, woman-loving-woman country song. Indeed, many of these aren’t necessarily voices we’ve heard before, and each Highwoman takes her moment or two at center stage before easily, naturally blending back into the group… which won’t be called a “supergroup,” if they have their druthers, because there’s a lot less ego involved than that moniker might suggest. As Hemby explains, “In some ways, it downplays what we’re trying to do. If people need to use that term, then fine. But that wasn’t our intention.”

Aside from the standard misogynistic comments on social media, the only real push-back on the band to be found is regarding a lack of diversity within their ranks. To be sure, they are four white women, one of whom is queer, but that wasn’t for lack of effort. “A lot of people were asked,” Hemby says about the band’s make-up, adding, “people in different genres, people of different colors and different backgrounds. But the answer was, ‘No. I can’t commit to something like this.’ The core group came together with people who could really commit the time.”

At Newport, the core group’s Quad Stage debut included both Yola and Sheryl Crow, the album’s other guest star, and more inter-band hugs than could be counted. The next night, on the Fort Stage with the Highwomen were the myriad other women whom Carlile wrangled for the first-ever all-female headlining set that did, indeed, include Dolly Parton, along with Mavis Staples, Judy Collins, Amy Ray, Our Native Daughters, Courtney Marie Andrews, Lucy Dacus, the First Ladies of Bluegrass, Linda Perry, and so many others in collaboration. Because that’s the Highwomen way… uplift, amplify, and embrace.