The self-titled debut from country supergroup the Highwomen recently arrived flush with generosity, virtue and goodwill — except during its sharpest left turn, in which Amanda Shires instructs some barnacle of an ex to retrieve his phone and dial “1-800-GO-2-HELL.” It happens near the end of “Don’t Call Me,” a zipper-tight song that’s as funny as it is fed up.
Yes, Nashville Songwriting 101 teaches all of its students to smother life’s endless irritations with uncomplicated laughter, but the razzing finale of “Don’t Call Me” ultimately serves as a reminder that Shires formed this band out of fed-up-ness.
After years of listening to country radio and rarely hearing anything other than men-guys-dudes-bros, she decided to start a group that could knock a bigger dent in the country music industry’s systemic misogyny than she could on her own. So she called up three-time Grammy-grabber Brandi Carlile, Music Row hotshot Natalie Hemby and golden-voiced star Maren Morris and asked them to join her cause.
Obviously, these four have assembled to do more than air their music-biz grievances. The group’s name is a nod to the Highwaymen, the all-star team that Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings formed back in 1985. And while the Highwomen’s individual stars don’t yet hang as high as their forebears’, their collective vision is vast. Their theme song, “Highwoman,” transforms Jimmy Webb’s 1977 tune “Highwayman” into a memorial to the women who perished fighting for their rights across borders and centuries. It’s sung from the perspective of a Honduran refugee, then a Salem “witch,” then a Mississippi-bound Freedom Rider — lost lives eulogized in a portentous refrain: “We’ll come back again.”
It’s exciting to see Carlile, Hemby, Morris and Shires linking arms this way, but it’s an exponentially bigger thrill to hear them merge their voices. Singing in multipart harmony remains country music’s most perfect tactic for transposing human empathy, solidarity and cooperation into sound — which means this album’s most powerful moments make it hard to tell who’s singing the lead.
That seems to be the entire point of “Crowded Table,” a song penned by Carlile, Hemby and Lori McKenna, one of the wisest songwriters working in Nashville today. “I want a house with a crowded table and a place by the fire for everyone,” the quartet declares in a lovely blur. “Let us take on the world while we’re young and able, and bring us back together when the day is done.”
The lyrics don’t say it outright, but all that egalitarian harmony lets us know the table is round.