Would it surprise you to learn that, when it comes to the oft-cited gender imbalance in country music, Brandi Carlile has … thoughts? She’s put her money where her mouth is by forming a new supergroup, the Highwomen, in which she’s enlisted three fellow singers whose ties to Nashville are just a little closer than her own. But as a solo singer/songwriter, she’s also put her mouth where her mouth is, as it were, by penning an as-yet-unreleased song about country’s so-called women problem: “Cowgirls.”
Carlile performed the new tune in concert at a few isolated gigs earlier this year (including at the all-female-headliner festival she curated, Girls Just Wanna). But when she sang it July at the Pacific Amphitheatre in California’s Orange County, it was certainly a debut for most everyone on hand. Carlile’s plans for the song, if any, aren’t known — she only indicated that “this isn’t a Highwomen song” — but even if it only remains something she keeps in her back pocket for live situations, “Cowgirls” is bound to strike a welcome chord with women struggling to find a place for their uniqueness in a more cookie-cutter cowboy’s world.
Although Carlile has moved around the outskirts of mainstream country more than being a full and eager participant in the genre (at least prior to forming the Highwomen), she made it clear her roots in the genre run deep, just like her current disappointment in its paucity of female stars.
“My first three concerts were Judds concerts, y’all, at a fairground just like this one,” she said (the Pacific Amphitheatre’s summer shows are tied to the annual Orange County Fair on the adjacent grounds). “And oh my God, I loved the Judds and Trisha Yearwood and Tanya Tucker and Rosanne Cash. And I mean, really, I was only allowed to listen to country music to a certain age in my house. We were kind of rural people and that was just our lifestyle. And I was so incredibly lucky to have so many women country singers to help tell the story of the other half of the human race …
“I noticed recently that country music is having this weird issue that’s kind of countercultural and strange with the times, that there’s just not that many female country singers. The ones that are there are great: I love me some Miranda Lambert all day long, and Maren Morris, but there’s just not enough of us. And so the Highwomen have come to try to open that door up… if we can get it open a little bit and just get our foot in there… This isn’t a Highwomen song, but I wrote this song about this…This isn’t a Highwomen song, but I wrote this (as) kind of a tongue-in cheek song to the boys in the country music industry.”
Carlile contrasts the classic country of Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash — both of whom she alludes to in the couplet “You know you can’t get a drink in this town without Sunday morning coming down / And cashin’ in on the costume” — with the new boys, who come in on charges of pretending to be outlaws in the lines that follow: “Yeah, get ‘em while they last / The NRA can kiss my country ass.” She offers some hope for their artistic redemption before going back in for the kill: “I hope your vintage guitar will take you where the wild things are / I hope you find your true voice there… / And if they’re going to call you an outlaw, live fast and die young / Well, those songs have already been sung / By better men… / Now that you’re just pissing in the wind / It’s time for you to let them cowgirls in.”
Meanwhile, the Highwomen released their debut single and video, “Redesigning Women,” on Friday, with an album set for Sept. 6. Carlile’s childhood heroines Wynonna Judd and Tanya Tucker make cameos in the video, along with a slew of younger singers still looking for a leg up. The Highwomen — who also include Maren Morris, Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby among their ranks — makes their official live debut July 26 at the Newport Folk Festival.