The Highwomen Rewrite the Narrative


Photo/ The Highwomen

Members (left to right) Carlile, Morris, Hemby, and Shires pose for a shot that will become the cover of their eponymous album

By Ajalon Peterson, Orono High School

On Sep. 6, the Highwomen released their self titled debut album, and it was a hit. It climbed its way up the charts, reaching first place on the Top Country Albums chart; this achievement, admirable in itself, was a landmark for female country artists–they were the first female group to reach No. 1 on the charts since Pistol Annies’ Interstate Gospel in 2018, and before that, Dixie Chicks in 2006. The eponymous album featured several “A-list” artists, such as Ray LaMontagne, Miranda Lambert, Jason Isbell, and Jimmy Webb, to name a few.

The appearance of the newly formed group has prompted questions from the public in regards to who these women are and why they formed their band.

The name “The Highwomen” is paying tribute to the Highwaymen, an all men’s country group that was previously composed of iconic artists Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson. In contrast, the Highwomen are made up of Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Maren Morris, and Natalie Hemby.

While the Highwomen have topped charts fairly easily, success in the country music industry hasn’t always been an equal playing field between men and women; in fact, it isn’t to this day. National Public Radio published an article in April of this year entitled “Country Music Excludes Women, Especially Over Age 40, Study Finds,” where it blatantly concludes that in the country music industry, “[t]he voices of women creators are severely underrepresented” (NPR).

The study in question was conducted by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, led by Stacy L. Smith, and found that not only do female country artists make up a meager 16 percent of the industry, but that a disproportionate amount of them are young artists. While the average age of a successful male country artist is 42, the average age for their female counterpart is 29.

The Highwomen rewrite that narrative, physically as well as lyrically. With Shires (37), Hemby (42), Morris (29), and Carlile (38), the Highwomen don’t follow the stereotype of typical successful female artists, yet they still top the charts.

It was this general lack of recognition and success of female country artists that sparked the initial formation of the group. Featured on the Ellen show, Shires stated that she was prompted to start the group when her daughter started showing interest in music. “I thought the worst thing that could happen would be that she would go for country, because they’re only currently two women’s voices that you can actually hear on the radio” Shires said.

The Highwomen are a diverse supergroup of mothers, artists, role models, and everything in between”

When Morris, one of the two supposed featured artists, was asked about the frequency with which she was played on mainstream radio, she responded that, “[t]hey play me, but when you compare it to some of my male peers, it’s pretty staggering still, and I’m one of the few lucky girls that gets played on country radio! We’re just trying to change that.”

Carlile seconded the stance of the two, stating that they formed the group “to try and represent more women and girls’ voices in country music.”

While this is a fairly tangible goal that they are setting, their hit song Redesigning Women hints at a deeper purpose of the group. It opens with the lines, “Full time living on a half time schedule/Always tryna make everybody feel special” (The Highwomen). Referring to the efforts and struggles of the modern day woman, the theme continues with the chorus “Running the world while we’re cleaning up the kitchen/Making bank, shaking hands, driving 80/Tryna get home just to feed the baby” (The Highwomen).

It speaks to the duality of society’s expectation of women; from domestic housework to the workforce, many women of all different backgrounds and lifestyles work around the clock to fulfill various duties and responsibilities, self imposed or otherwise. The disparity between men and women artists in the industry is the physical manifestation of the lack of recognition that women often receive, and the Highwomen are aiming to change that narrative in more ways than one.

While opinions over country music can be disputed, the mission of these women cannot be. The Highwomen are a diverse supergroup of mothers, artists, role models, and everything in between. They’re paving the way for future female artists, and empowering women of all walks of life while doing it.

This story was originally published on The Spartan Speaks on November 11, 2019.