Editor’s Note: Tara Murtha is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer and the author of the book “Ode to Billie Joe” for the 33 1/3 Series published by Bloomsbury Academic. Follow her on Twitter at @taramurtha. The views expressed here are the author’s. Read more opinion on CNN.
Country music is often described as three chords and the truth.
But whose truth gets to be told?
That’s the question driving The Highwomen, the new all-female country supergroup that’s also a movement. The group’s four songwriting musicians – Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires – came together to call for inclusivity in the country music industry. Shires dreamed up the idea after counting a paltry number of women she heard on the radio while on the road.
“Almost all of us are mothers of young girls. And we all grew up listening to country music,” Carlile has said about the motivation behind the project. “We recognize that we’re in a time right now where our daughters don’t have the same country music heroes that we had.”
Indeed, data confirms that country radio has a woman problem as deep as the voice of George Jones. A recent report from Dr. Jada E. Watson of the University of Ottawa in consultation with WOMAN Nashville quantified a backlash to progress that never got close to parity. In the year 2000, female artists represented 33% of the songs on country radio.
In 2018, it was down to 11%.
The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative also recently published research documenting gender inequity across airtime, awards, and songwriting credits.
Even pop culture icons like Kacey Musgraves can’t fully break the barrier. Earlier this week a Musgraves fan tweeted, “Imagine being lucky enough to hear Kacey on a country radio station.” Musgraves, whose Golden Hour LP earned four Grammys and Country Music Association’s album of the year, responded, “The chances of a leprechaun riding by on a pink one-eyed horse and giving you a high five are greater.”
Enter The Highwomen.
Their name is a play on The Highwaymen, the country supergroup of male artists that helped define the subgenre known as outlaw country decades ago.
As their name signals, The Highwomen’s debut self-titled record declares their intention to celebrate the history and traditions of country music while interrogating – and hopefully shifting – its direction.
The opening track “Highwomen” is part of a grand tradition of country answer songs that directly respond to another artist’s song, as if the artists are in conversation. Most famously, Kitty Wells shot to fame in 1952 with “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” in response to Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life.” In 1965, Jody Miller responded to Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” with “Queen of the House.” LaVern Baker’s “Hey Memphis” is an excellent retort to Elvis Presley’s “Little Sister.”
“Highwomen,” of course, is an answer song to “Highwayman.” In the original, the four Highwaymen take turns singing verses about being a soldier, a sailor, a dam builder and a starship pilot who have been murdered. The men assure the listener their spirits live on, despite the loss of their lives.
The Highwomen refreshed the lyrics to tell stories of women killed while fighting for freedom for themselves, their children and the world. They are a Honduran refugee, a healer accused of witchcraft, a civil rights freedom fighter (a verse sung by British singer Yola) and a preacher. Their common bond is that love, talent and courage drove them to rise above limits imposed on them by society. It’s an anthem of ambition and resilience.
We are the Highwomen, singing stories still untold.
The first single, “Redesigning Women,” is a catchy sing-along riddled with clever jokes that was released with a video where they tossed an ironing board and frilly frocks into a pile and lit it ablaze. Another of the album’s highlights, “If She Ever Leaves Me,” is a classic country ballad that just happens to be about a woman who catches a man staring at her girlfriend. “I’ve loved her in secret, I’ve loved her out loud,” sings Carlile, who has been out as a lesbian since 2002. “If she ever leaves me,” she sings, “it won’t be for you.”
It’s especially poignant to hear Carlile croon a gay country song since Carlile has said she navigated her career away from the country genre in part because she “saw what happened to k.d. lang,” who felt ostracized by country music after coming out as a lesbian.
“My Name Can’t Be Mama” digs into country music’s tropes about saintly mothers that finds the Highwomen sharing moments they can’t deal with being on mom duty. One is pinned to bed by a hangover. Another is a touring artist who has to get on the road again. One character just isn’t ready, yet. The song manages to celebrate motherhood and insist on other-hood in the same breath, a premise about as tricky as using a country record to criticize the country music industry.
“Crowded Table” continues the long tradition of badass country women encoding the quest for equality into stories about home life. All four voices of The Highwomen blend—in mono, with no one voice louder than the others–to express to the desire that unites them. “I want a house with a crowded table, and a place by the fire for everyone.”
Middle- and upper-class feminist activists may have realized that the personal is the political, but country women have always seen the political in the personal, and addressed the fight for equality on those terms.
Loretta Lynn notoriously sang the praises of reproductive freedom back in 1975, but the narrator in the “The Pill” was a housewife and mother appealing to her husband. Dolly Parton was clearly critiquing society’s double standards about premarital sex in “Just Because I’m a Woman” in 1968, but the narrator is a young girl talking to her boyfriend. In the context of The Highwomen, the desire for a crowded table represents their call for country radio to make room for everyone. By translating their critique of industry into the domestic sphere, they are saying they respect the traditions of country music enough to criticize the industry that’s holding it back from its future.
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Country music is an ever-evolving aural history of the tensions inherent in negotiating American identity–between the high lonesome fiddle and jangly peels of banjo, between the sins of Saturday night and Sunday morning salvation, between the real and imagined America.
The Highwomen have set the table for a feast where everyone, no matter gender, race or sexual orientation, can share their three chords and the truth.
“This isn’t a challenge,” Carlile has said. “This is an invitation.”