Redesigning the Sisterhood: The Highwomen on Making the Best Country Album in Years

In a Q&A, Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby and Amanda Shires discuss the whirlwind formation of a supergroup with a higher purpose.

Amanda Shires, Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby, Brandi Carlile, The Highwomen. Amanda Shires, from left, Maren Morris, Brandi Carlile, and Natalie Hemby of The Highwomen perform at Loretta Lynn's 87th Birthday Tribute at Bridgestone Arena, in Nashville, TennLoretta Lynn 87th Birthday Tribute, Nashville, USA - 01 Apr 2019
Al Wagner/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

If you believe there can be such a thing as an instant country classic, “The Highwomen” is that. Speaking of high (the group’s cheeky-sounding name is meant to confer exaltation, not stoner-dom — honest), the all-star foursome has put together an album full of high comedy and high pathos, zingy group-sings and gut-wreching solo turns, wryness and rue, and harmony co-existing with this strange and nearly forgotten thing called twang. The price of admission does not include the pursuit of any particular agenda.

There is one, of course: an attempt to redress the dearth of women in contemporary country with a spectacular one-album surfeit of the stuff. The supergroup was first conceived as a gleam in the eyes of folk-rock goddess-of-the-year Brandi Carlile, before she became the belle of this year’s Grammy ball (see Variety‘s January cover story), and alt-country favorite Amanda Shires, celebrated for her own solo albums and for fiddling in Jason Isbell’s 400 Unit. Joining up just in time to make the Highwomen’s debut album this spring were Maren Morris, arguably the top female artist in mainstream country at the moment, and Natalie Hemby, whose lone solo album got overlooked in the rush to celebrate hundreds of songs she’s co-written for other Nashville artists.

Just after they made their live debut at the Newport Folk Festival, Variety spoke with Morris, Hemby and Shires backstage at the fest and caught up separately with Carlile at a nearby hotel (conversations that have been streamlined and edited together here). They don’t have designs on replacing the Highwaymen (Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson) as country music’s Mount Rushmore. They are hoping songs like “Redesigning Women” remind folks just how much the female gaze has been shunted out of sight lately.

When we last spoke with you just before the Grammys, Brandi, there were only two Highwomen in place: you and Amanda. Since the beginning of the year, then, you added two more members, did your first live show, and recorded and released an album, all in eight months. It happened so fast.

Carlile: I just feel like now’s the time to not be strategic, but to just do something that I love and put it out into the world. We may succeed — we might have a triumph here on our hands — and that would be a great story for women. Or we may be rejected and it and it may not take off. And in a sense, that would also be a great story for women, because I think that our successes are not more important than our attempts right now to change the system and to challenge the status quo.

What does success look like to you with this? Is it something you actually hope it will be embraced by the country mainstream and radio? Or if people just love it but the country music establishment doesn’t care, is that still success?

Carlile: Yeah. Both of those scenarios are successful. I would love for it to get embraced by the country music establishment. Fundamentally, I love the country music establishment, and I always have since I was a little girl. I didn’t go down that road myself musically because it was changing so rapidly and because I saw what happened to k.d. lang, and I don’t think I was prepared then to embrace that genre, that institution, because I didn’t think it would embrace me back. Also, my musical tastes were developing in a really eclectic, ultra-gay, Brit-pop and rock ‘n’ roll sense, combined with this Grand Ole Opry/early Elvis Presley aesthetic.

But when we started the Highwomen, I thought, wouldn’t it be great if it did get embraced by the country music establishment? Because it would be great for so many different kind of women to see a different kind of woman being embraced by that establishment. It would be really great for gay country singers, and Yola’s involvement (as a guest vocalist) makes it really great for people of color to see: “Hey, I never thought it before, but there might be a place for me here.” That’s what I would love for the Highwomen to be able to do. And if they can’t do it, then the blatant exclusion of it is a conversation starter, too, isn’t it? You know, it’s like this Lil Nas X thing: You love that song, you hate that song. It’s country, it’s not country. It’s racism, it’s not racism. We don’t know. All I know is, we’re talking about it. And if the Highwomen can do that on any level, that’s successful to me.

In gathering the material for this album, how did you think about including solo-oriented songs versus those that really emphasize the ensemble? There’s a mixture of both.

Morris: Yeah, Brandi has a few, Amanda has a couple, I have a couple, Natalie has hers…

Carlile: That’s where we got a lot of help from (producer) Dave Cobb. He’d be like, “Okay, let’s all get together on the bridge.” He wasn’t listening to the lyrics as much as we were, so there were some moments where he wanted us to do a gang vocal, and we were like, “No, Amanda’s got to do that one by herself.” It came down to the words. When you were delivering a message that needs a community, you’re together. When you’re delivering a message that needs a single voice, you’re alone. And “Cocktail and a Song” is about Amanda’s dad (being terminally ill). “If She Ever Leaves Me, It Won’t Be for You” needs to be sung by a gay person. And “Only Child” needs to be sung by the woman that wrote it to make peace with the fact that she’s only going to have one. We stayed out of the way of each other’s message, but we supported each other when we needed the group.

Shires: For the most part, all the songs except for one (“The Highwomen,” their lyrically rewritten adaptation of Jimmy Webb’s classic “The Highwaymen”) are told from one of our four perspectives. And that’s important, because I don’t feel like people have heard a lot of songs from the domestic side of women’s daily lives.

Morris: I don’t think there’s really a love song on this record.

Shires: There’s types of love songs, but they’re not like “I’m in love” or an unrequited love. It’s not a partner-centric subject that the Highwomen are speaking of in any of them.

The only case where one member wrote a song for another member was “If She Ever Leaves Me,” which Amanda and Jason (Isbell, her husband) wrote from a gay perspective for Brandi to sing.

Carlile: They sent it to me right before I got on a long flight that had broken wi-fi, and I couldn’t download it to listen to it. I think that was the longest six hours of Jason’s life, because he sent it through, and then he just sat there, getting himself an ulcer that it was offensive or something. And then I landed and was like, “Yes! Holy shit!,” as soon as I could hit send, and he was like, “Oh, thank God.”

Shires: At that point, I’d known Brandi and her wife (for some time). Tried to make out with them both and they both said no. [Laughs.] I was like, “I’ll start doing push-ups and ask you again next year.”

It’s still startling to hear women sing about domestic issues, as you do on so many songs here. Plus, Natalie mentioned varicose veins from the stage at your Newport gig, though you didn’t write a song about that.

Hemby: Right — that’s album 2. What we wanted to do was be authentic, and not be too preachy, but also make a statement. “Mama Can’t Be Mama” is about how some days it’s hard to be a mom. I wanted to write “Redesigning Women” about how we are going a thousand different directions. Because of modern technology, we can run corporations and we can raise our families. But the truth of the matter is, as a 42-year-old woman, I’m learning as I get older that we can’t do it all and do it all well. That’s kind of what I was trying to write it from: “How do we do it? Well, we do it halfway right and halfway wrong.” That’s the truth. I know everybody’s like, “We’re women, we can do anything!” And we can, but really we can’t do everything well. But you know what? You can try. [Laughs.]

Did you all know that you needed a sing-along anthem to tie the album up in a bow? Because “Redesigning Women” certainly does that.

Carlile: Dave Cobb called me first and said, “Brandi! I was just walking by the door upstairs” – where she was writing at RCA – “and I just heard a song out of there called ‘Redesigning Women’ and I know it’s Natalie’s voice and I’m just f—in’ praying she wrote it for the Highwomen. Call her, call her.” So I called her and I was like, “Did you just write a song for the Highwomen called ‘Redesigning Women’?” “Oh, it’s a joke. It’s real. I mean, I don’t know. It was just…” And I was like, “Send it to me!”

We could almost chart some of the progress of the Highwomen coming together through social media. When you started on the album, you were positing photos of just the original trio. And then we saw Natalie commenting on one of your Instagram posts, and I think you, Brandi, responded, “Come on by!” Within days, you were posting new group photos with Natalie in the lineup.

Carlile: The big a-ha moment of the band, that it was working, was down to Natalie, who is like the rock and the glue of the group in a way. Because I was never really married to my intellectual contribution being about writing so much as I just wanted to use my voice and stand next to these women and support each other. So I wasn’t like, “I need to write all these things.” I felt like it should be more of a movement, more inclusive, and that we should open it up to other writers, like Lori McKenna and Miranda Lambert and Natalie. There were some others I called too, but Natalie and I just started talking on the phone and became friends. It reminded me of l junior high school where you can’t wait to get home after seeing your friend all day and then call him on the phone and sit there for an hour. I could feel my face heating up from my phone battery, talking to Natalie.

She sent in this first song, “Crowded Table,” where she sounded like Sheryl Crow; she sounds like the ‘90s to me, and I love it. We get in the studio the first day and “Crowded Table” was the first song we did, and Natalie came down because we were recording her song. We’re singing this song in unison, and it sounded like Natalie’s demo, where she doubles her vocals. And it just dawned on all of us simultaneously: “Okay. This is not just about this song. This is the sound of the band — this one voice, this unison, coming at you in mono, one push — a no one competing with each other sound. And then Natalie was just in the band, because not only had she written probably our best song at that moment, and probably our best song in general, but she had coined the sound of the band and done it from this really supportive place. We asked her, and she’s like “Y’all, give it some thought. You don’t want me in the band! I don’t even have a manager.”

She’s a real visionary. I hope that this facilitates something for her in her life that she wants to do and that she can love. Her writing has been amazing, and she is so respected in Nashville, but I would just love to see her out there in theaters (as a solo artist), just owning it.

When you did your first show at Newport, Brandi told the audience you were all “f—ing terrified.” You didn’t look terrified.

Hemby: I was totally terrified. I’ve been to thousands of concerts, but I’ve never seen something in a room like that be so electric. And walking up there, just for two seconds, I felt like a Beatle. It was like a “Field of Dreams” moment for me, like, I get this one chance.

Morris: The Highwomen debuting at Newport is one of my favorite shows of my career.

Newport was kind of a one-off for now, right? You don’t have gig number two lined up yet?

Carlile: Yeah, we don’t know what we’re going to do now.

Shires: We were just waiting to see how this would all go. Because we felt like it’s important, but it’s hard to guess what anybody else might feel. We don’t have any shows on the books. We’re all still figuring out what this is. And I think a big piece of the puzzle was found when we finally got to perform live. It felt like we were a band, not an idea. But you don’t ever know how it’s really going to go when you just move in with your new roommate.

Hemby: It is a hard thing to line everyone’s schedules up, because everybody is traveling quite a bit — except me. We were kind of using (Newport) to gauge what future shows we want to play.

Morris: We should do the Ryman. We should do a month of it. Let’s do a year at the Ryman.

Shires: Everyone’s busy, but there’s one other factor: This is really f—ing fun. And that will make you do a lot of things differently in your life.

Morris: I mean, if “SNL” called us tomorrow and was like, “Can you do this date?,” I would miss someone’s wedding.

Did you all get the Highwomen tattoos? It looked on social media like all of Nashville was getting them for a minute there.  

Morris: I wasn’t there that day…

Hemby: I don’t have any tattoos, so I had necklaces made for everybody.

Shires: Jason got one. Our guitar tech got one. Some members of the 400 Unit got one. John Prine’s wife… There’s a lot of women and men out there who really believe in the spirit behind this. That’s why we got the tattoos.

The ones who stepped up to get branded when you were  just starting on the album really took a leap of faith.

Shires: Yeah, smart people. People I would definitely gamble with.

Brandi, when we spoke to you at the beginning of the year, when the Highwomen were really just starting to come together, you talked about how women need to come together to raise each other up — but you also noted that, because there are so few slots for women, women can get competitive, too. There are plenty of women who might not take a gamble on being part of something so collaborative, who feel they have to work hard enough doing their own thing.

Carlile: With the Highwomen, I would say the hardest work we do is to wake up every morning and choose to shut that voice down that we all have in us. It’s institutionalized. We’ve been told from birth that we have to compete with other women, and whether or not somebody’s verbally telling us that, or whether or not we’re actually just seeing it on the magazines in the supermarket, we know what we have to do to move ourselves forward in the world. In the Highwomen, you have to silence that; you don’t get to have that voice. It’s really hard, and it’s really woke. It’s a big challenge for a lot of people, and it’s a big challenge for me.

There’s a possibility that some people, in country radio or elsewhere, would see women banding together as even more threatening, if they feel like everyone’s on their backs and they’re on the defensive about the issue. When Pistol Annies started up, there was definitely some sense of: Do they have an agenda here? Are they coming for us with torches and pitchforks?

Carlile: Yeah, and we’re not skirting the issue, but this isn’t a challenge. This is an invitation. It’s an olive branch, you know. We’re arms outstretched to the community and to the establishment, and whether or not we’re embraced is to be determined.

Doing this might have been simpler for some of you than it was for others. Fortunately you and Amanda are kind of between album launches. But Maren launched a big album this year. I can imagine her record company saying, “Wait, we’re trying to get you to number one at radio, which is tough enough, and you’re gonna do what to distract people from that?”

Carlile: Yeah. You say you can imagine, but you can’t. I have to say, the significance of Maren’s involvement in this project can’t be overstated, because it’s truly selfless. Because she is succeeding. She’s one of maybe two or three (women) that are succeeding and being embraced by the establishment. She’s No. 1 right now, and she’s at Newport Folk Festival standing next to three women saying, “Yeah, I’m No. 1, but it’s a problem that more of us aren’t.” To me, it’s the ultimate expression of love. She’s out to perpetuate inclusion in a way that’s really radical for her age, and for the fact that she is in her moment, in her heyday, right now, and she’s choosing to share it. It’s a big deal.

Hemby: Maren is right in the thick of it. The reason why it’s such a big deal that we talk about your song going No. 1, Maren, is because it doesn’t happen very often with women.

Shire: And with that subject matter (women exhorting women).

Hemby: It’s frustrating for me as a songwriter to write songs for women in country, and they don’t get the shot that they deserve. They don’t get the same kind of opportunity as a lot of boys who just come in and out, and we don’t even really know their names as they just shoot up to number one. Not all of them, though, but… [To Morris] Why are you laughing?

Morris: I was thinking that’s so true. Like, they’ll have a No. 1 that’s a turntable hit [widely played at radio but not being consumed anywhere else], and then, dude, it’s like, they all have the same name!

Hemby: Literally like, who is this guy? I don’t even know who he is.

Morris: And then Carrie Underwood can’t get to No. 1. Carrie Effing Underwood!

Hemby: Amanda, tell him about when you called all the radio stations.

Shires: Back before I had a bus, I was riding in a van and driving it a lot, as you do, and I just thought it would be interesting to see if these things that I keep reading in articles are true. I was like, “On this 12-hour drive today, I’m going to listen to country radio.” I started writing down who sang it and what song it was. I was expecting (to get to) ten (songs before hearing a female artist) — that sounds like normal. It got to 18 before they played a Carly Pierce song, at 19. They go through the whole thing again; it’s an hour and a half more. So I called the guy and I’m like, “Can’t you play some more females? Or ladies, or women or whatever?” And he said, “Yeah, but they’ve got to be requested.” And I said, “I’m requesting you play somebody.” Then he was like, “Well, you’ve gotta go on Facebook, and the person has to get voted in to get played on the requests.” So after you request them, they still have to be voted on. And people don’t know who to request, because nobody’s getting played, so it’s a Catch-22. It’s a snake-eating-its-tail situation.

Hemby: Brandi always talks about how she grew up listening to Tanya Tucker and Trisha Yearwood on the radio, and we just don’t have that. Well, I mean, we do have it [nods to Morris], but we want more of it. Because there are different kinds of women, too. One doesn’t cover it…

Shires: We’re all daughters, and the way we grew up, hearing women, I would want the same for Mercy Rose [her and Isbell’s child] and Sammie Jo [Hemby’s] and Evangeline [Carlile’s]. Something has to go well at some point. Or at least try. That way you can sleep at night.

Maren, with ”Girl” going No. 1, did that feel like a risk to put out, as a woman-to-woman song, or did you feel confident it would get there?

Morris: It was a risk. Every sophomore album from an artist is terrifying — it’s the (fear of) the sophomore slump, and are you gonna bomb and totally lose people? But putting “Girl” out just sort of summed up the whole record, I mean, that’s why I named the album “Girl.” I didn’t think it was even going to crack the top 10, but weirdly enough, it was my fastest single.

Hemby: Was it really?

Morris: Yeah, because “I Could Use a Love Song” was my only other (solo) No. 1, and that took 42 weeks to get there. “Girl” was 28 weeks.

Brandi, with Maren having a No. 1 single right now, do you find that essentially encouraging, or is the fact that like she’s one of two women who’s accomplished that in the last two years discouraging in being the exception that proves the anomaly?

Carlile: That side of it’s devastating to me, but I also find it so encouraging. If one of us is winning, we’re all winning. The fact that she’s one of only a few women to do that recently is just disturbing. With that said, I’m self-conscious about saying it’s a bigger issue than it is. I’m really sensitive to people crying persecution about bourgie issues or Western issues, when I’ve done the work that I have with refugees, asylum seekers, economic migrants and displaced people around the world. I’m really sensitive to making too much out of domestic pop culture issues.

But when it comes to the arts and their responsibility to tell the story of both sides of the human race… particularly in rural genres, because I was raised that way, listening to country and western, rural, Americana roots music, and only allowed to listen to that for a certain part of my childhood… If I hadn’t had those women in country music telling my story and listened to it on the radio, I don’t know that I’d have my job right now. And I love my job. So I don’t think it’s a boutique issue. It’s a big one.