When Brandi Carlile first made her mark in the Indie-Folk/Adult Alternative world in 2007 with her Grey’s Anatomy featured debut single, “The Story” I would have never guessed that a decade later she would go on to form an all-women country supergroup. But that’s probably because I wasn’t paying really close attention to the music world at the time. In retrospect it all makes sense, “The Story” was produced by none other than T-Bone Burnett. Carlile, like Burnett, has made a career of producing music that brings the fringes of folk, alternative, and outlaw country to mainstream audiences.
So, when Brandi Carlile and Amanda Shires formed the Highwomen as the female answer to the male country supergroup the Highwaymen and rounded out the roster with Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby it all seems to somehow make sense now. Their Dave Cobb produced album, The Highwomen is as pure as country music gets. Cobb has produced for a number of my favorite artists doing contemporary “neotraditional” country and folk that blends and bends those definitions further with elements of roots, rock, pop, and alternative music: Jamey Johnson, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and my personal favorite, Ian Noe.
The album breathes a strong, independent, fierce, sensual, feminine, and feminist (in the best way) breath of fresh air into the still male-dominated world of Country music, hell the world of music in general. The album’s songs are packed with lush acoustic guitar and piano, much of both instruments are handled by Carlile. There are punctuation marks of old-time violin played by Shires. The songs on the album provide anthemic and often brilliant portraits of the lives of women: lovers, mothers, single women, working women, straight women, gay women, and on the album’s (and the group’s theme song) a strong black woman.
The decision to remake the group’s theme song to the tune of the original Highwaymen theme song was bold. As Carlile described in Roling Stone, of the ladies giving the old country, outlaw, ghost anthem an update:
[Their characters] all died doing things that men do,” says Carlile. “Willie was a bandit. Johnny Cash drove a fucking starship, nobody knows why. We rewrote it with fates that befell women: a doctor convicted of witchcraft; an immigrant who died trying to get over the border but got the kids over safe and sound; a preacher; and a freedom rider who gets shot.
It is perhaps the decision to include the story of a black freedom rider on their theme song that was the group’s boldest and riskiest move. Maren Morris sits out on her lead vocal duties on the album’s lead track and the Supergroup’s theme song. In her usual place is Yola Carter (formerly of Phantom Limb and a powerhouse of a vocalist in her own right) singing a verse only a black woman can sing: the story of a freedom rider killed in the bus attacks carried out by white supremacists groups in the south, in this instance in Virginia in 1961. I mean theses kick-ass women made a theme song that doesn’t include one of their key members. This is a key “Character” to the group, to the degree that The Highwomen is a re-envisioning of The Highwaymen. It’s as if Carlile, Shires, Morris, and Hemby know that no circle of women singing feminist anthems is complete if it only includes white women.
And that’s why it makes it to today’s Apocalyptic Playlist track. These women aren’t making merely feminist country music. They’re at least attempting to make inclusive feminist country. It may not be consciously womanist, but it is at least intentional about the inclusion of black bodies when they sing their song of women outlaws who laid their lives down to change the world and now live on.
After all, the roots of Country Music, like all almost all forms of American music trace their roots to black music: the banjo, the gospel choir. Country, perhaps even more than Rock and Roll, has become a predominately white art, deeply indebted to black art. Not just Charley Pride and Darius Rucker, though they’ve made some fine contributions. But Country music is deeply indebted to traditional African American Music that goes all the way back to slave spirituals and field songs.
Bravo ladies! Folks we are never going to make it as a society though if the lives and bodies of all women and in particular black women and other women of color aren’t seen as more than symbols of powerful women from the past and still today, as tokens, tools, useful for their electability and the power of their potential voting block. That’s the way public discourse about potential VP running mates for Joe Biden seems to be taking place. And the way the public seems disinterested in the acts of aggression both presidential candidates have committed against women is just astounding. We need to be reminded still – and sadly more than ever – that the lives of women – all women – matter!
As always, please enjoy, subscribe, follow on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I always appreciate when you folks share these posts on social media. Thank you so much for those of you that have been doing so! Please remember to include the hashtag #PlaylistfortheApocalypse
And please, whether you’re in quarantine, an essential worker, or in a place that is back open if you’re enjoying the posts and the playlist, say hi, feel free to introduce yourself or interact. I am always up for community building. And as I’ve said I am in Michigan, with a stay at home order, now expanded until March 28. So if you have requests for content, questions, or comments it looks like I am going to be having some more time on my hands when this playlist ends next week. Until Monday, Namaste.
*It seems WordPress and Spotify are still not getting along. Apparently, I’m not the first or only one this has effected. Sorry, but for now, no embedded playlists.