The supergroup concept can become a minefield. As big talents and personalities clash, there’s no guarantee that the final product will live up to its potential. At their best, such collaborations can push top tier artists to magnificent results. In the case of the high-powered country supergroup The Highwomen, the result is clearly the latter. Comprised of country singer-songwriters Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby, the quartet reaches a summit of creativity on its masterful self-titled debut LP.
In part an homage to the ’80s supergroup The Highwaymen—which included Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson—The Highwomen forge their own path by applying their own generational, societal and gender-flipped perspective on a genre they play so gracefully.
The group enlisted Jimmy Webb, who penned the 1977 song “The Highwaymen,” to help rewrite the song with a new voice. It’s simple and true to the classic but its sharp modern message cuts like a knife. It tells the respective stories of an immigrant mother from Honduras, a preacher, a woman convicted of witchcraft and a freedom rider—the latter of which voiced by guest vocalist Yola. All five singers come together for a final verse that unites the the individual tales with an empowering message.
The Highwomen has even more star-power than meets the eye. While the project is centered on the four singer-songwriters, Sheryl Crow, Miranda Lambert, Jason Isbell, Rodney Crowell, Chris Tompkins and more lend a hand, either lyrically or musically. This makes for a diverse, unpredictable listening experience.
The album naturally fuses timeless country arrangements and performance with a decidedly modern lyrical approach. The Americana balladry of “If She Ever Leaves Me” tells the story of a same-sex love through the lens of a women fending off an eager man, while the lush, fiddle-driven jam “Old Soul” sees Morris’ voice spread as wide as the plains.
Hemby co-wrote “Redesigning Women,” a song recalling the everyday struggles of women with a wink and a nod. As the harmonized chorus soars above the breezy blues rock riff, the track sways with the beat. “Loose Changes” feels slightly more modern-era country with Morris singing about a lover scorned, from the point of the view of the coins in her pocket.
The Highwomen’s debut sports impressive inclusivity. Even with the aforementioned slate of guest stars, none of the four principal artists dominates the others. Each of them gets as many moments to shine individually, as musicians and vocalists, as they do moments to harmonize. It’s difficult to fake chemistry as good as this, and its clear that all parties remained on the same committed page during the recording process.
The lyrical songwriting excels not only in artistry but in its diversity—based on the four people pouring love into the project. The bouncy Americana stomper “My Name Can’t Be Mama” tells the story of a mother reconciling her less-than-ideal moments with her child with her unending maternal love.
The album’s quieter moments prove equal in power to its dramatic passages. For example, “Cocktail and a Song” is performed with a pained and heartfelt vocal performance by Shires. The piano-driven “Wheels of Laredo,” one of Carlile’s best moments, achieves a similar effect with its lush acoustics and soulful harmonies. It provides the beautiful bookend from a triumphant first outing.
Each of the songwriters has a successful music career, so it makes sense that the quality of this record sounds like it came from a well-seasoned band. It’s not a stretch to say this won’t be the last time this quartet will ride the highway together.
Follow writer Mike DeWald at Twitter.com/mike_dewald.